February 4, 2023

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Protesting Serbs in northern Kosovo agree to remove barricades

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Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said the dismantling of barricades that have blocked roads will begin on Thursday.

Serb protesters have agreed to start removing barricades and end their blockade of roads in northern Kosovo, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has said.

Vucic, who met Serbs from northern Kosovo in the Serbian town of Raska, said the process of removing the barricades, which have blocked roads for 19 days, will begin on Thursday morning.

“The removal of barricades will begin,” Vucic said late on Wednesday.

“This is not a simple process, and can’t be done in two hours, as some imagined. But within 24 to 48 hours the barricades will be removed. But distrust is not removed,” he said.

“Those who are playing with [the] very existence of Serbs in Kosovo must know that, same like we didn’t allow it now, we will not allow it in the future as well.”

The European Union and the United States, who are mediating talks between Belgrade and Pristina to resolve the tense dispute, have guaranteed that none of the Serbs who set up barricades will be prosecuted, he added.

The EU and US said in a joint statement on Wednesday that they welcomed “the assurances of the leadership of Kosovo confirming that no lists of Kosovo Serb citizens to be arrested or prosecuted for peaceful protests/barricades exist”.

“At the same time, rule of law must be respected, and any form of violence is unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” the statement added.

Serbian state media reported that Vucic had travelled to the border with Kosovo for talks with Kosovo Serbs to try to persuade them to end their blockade.

“Just think again… what do we get if barricades remain? I can tell you 500 things we can get if they are removed,” Vucic said during the meeting, state-controlled public broadcaster RTS reported.

Serbia had put its army on its highest alert on Monday as the situation in northern Kosovo appeared to be spiralling out of control with Kosovo on Wednesday closing its largest border crossing to Serbian territory.

On Tuesday night, dozens of demonstrators on the Serbian side of the border used trucks and tractors to halt traffic leading to Merdare, the biggest crossing between the neighbours. The move forced Kosovo police to close the entry point on Wednesday.

“Such an illegal blockade has prevented the free movement and circulation of people and goods, therefore we invite our citizens and compatriots to use other border points for circulation,” a Kosovo police statement said.

Pristina had asked NATO-led peacekeepers to clear the barricades erected on Kosovo soil, adding that its own forces were also capable of removing the protesters.

The EU and US had voiced concern over the situation and urged for an immediate de-escalation, saying they were working with Vucic and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti to seek a political solution to one of the worst flare-ups in years between the Balkan neighbours.

“We call on everyone to exercise maximum restraint, to take immediate action to unconditionally de-escalate the situation, and to refrain from provocations, threats, or intimidation,” they said in their joint statement.

Earlier on Wednesday, a former Kosovo Serb policeman, whose arrest on December 10 had triggered violent protests by Kosovo’s Serb minority – including road blockades – was released from custody and put under house arrest after a request from the prosecutor’s office, a spokesperson for the Pristina Basic Court told Reuters.

Dejan Pantic was arrested for assaulting a serving police officer. The court decision angered Kosovo government officials, including Prime Minister Kurti and justice minister Albulena Haxhiu.

“I am very curious to see who is the prosecutor who makes this request, who is the judge of preliminary procedure that approves it,” Kurti said.

For more than 20 years, Kosovo has been a source of tension between the West, which backed its independence from Serbia in 2008, and Russia, which does not recognise Pristina and has supported Serbia in its efforts to block Kosovo’s membership of global organisations including the United Nations.

The Kremlin, however, denied the Kosovo interior minister’s claims this week that Russia was influencing Serbia’s handling of the ethnic tension to destabilise Kosovo, saying Serbia was defending the rights of ethnic Serbs.

The estimated 50,000 Serbs living in the north of Kosovo, which they believe is still part of Serbia, resist any moves they see as anti-Serb and refuse to recognise the government in Pristina or the status of Kosovo as a separate country. They have the support of many Serbs in Serbia and its government.

Albanian-majority Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, with the backing of the West, following a 1998-99 war in which NATO intervened against Serbian forces to protect ethnic Albanian citizens.

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