Serbs revoke troop alert, remove some roadblocks in Kosovo
MITROVICA, Kosovo (AP) — Serbia on Thursday revoked combat readiness of its troops on the border with Kosovo as local Serbs started removing more than a dozen of the roadblocks they had set up in the north of the state, in a sign of easing of tensions that have sparked fears of a renewed conflict in the Balkans.
Earlier on Thursday, Kosovo reopened a border crossing with Serbia after a nearby barricade that led to its closure was first removed. Later, ethnic Serbs in Kosovo dismantled another roadblock and more are set to follow.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic first announced late on Wednesday that Serbs would start removing their barricades. The move defuses weeks of tensions between former war foes Kosovo and Serbia.
The European Union, which both Serbia and Kosovo are seeking to join, welcomed the developments.
“Diplomacy prevailed in de-escalating tensions in north Kosovo,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said. “Violence can never be a solution.”
Kosovo, which has a majority ethnic Albanian population, is a former Serbian province from which Serbian forces were dislodged following a NATO bombing campaign in 1999. It declared independence nine years later but Belgrade doesn’t recognize it.
Kosovo had demanded that NATO-led peacekeepers remove the barricades, and said its own forces would do it otherwise. Serbia then raised combat readiness of its troops on the border, demanding an end to “attacks” against Kosovo Serbs.
The state RTS television said Thursday that the Serbian army abolished the high alert of its troops near the Kosovo border after the agreement to remove the barricades. This deal was reached at a late-night crisis meeting with the leaders of Kosovo’s Serbs, Vucic said.
It followed the release from jail of a former Kosovo Serb police officer, whose detention on a terrorism change triggered protests and tension in northern Kosovo. A Kosovo court ordered him placed under house arrest Wednesday.
The roadblocks consisted mostly of loaded heavy trucks, other vehicles and tents. Unknown assailants set fire to two trucks on a roadblock in the northern town of Mitrovica, Kosovo police said.
The former police officer, Dejan Pantic, was detained Dec. 10 for “terrorism” after allegedly assaulting a Kosovo police officer during an earlier protest.
Kosovo’s president and prime minister have criticized the court decision to release Pantic from jail.
“How is it possible for someone who is accused of terrorism to go from detention to house arrest,” President Vjosa Osmani said late Wednesday.
The main Merdare border crossing with Serbia closed down earlier this week because of a roadblock a few kilometers away, on the Serbian side of the border.
Kosovo police told expatriates heading to Kosovo from European countries for the holidays that they could again use that route instead of going through North Macedonia or other entry points.
The unrest over Pantic’s detention sparked tense standoffs and gunshots but no major clashes. However, international concerns grew of a new conflict in Europe while the war in Ukraine is raging as well.
A separatist rebellion by Kosovo’s majority Albanians led to a 1998-99 war that featured a brutal Serbian crackdown in the territory that was its province at the time.
NATO intervened in 1999 to stop the onslaught and push Serbia out of Kosovo. But Belgrade does not recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence and has relied on Russia and China for backing.
Both Serbia and Kosovo have been told they must normalize relations in order to become members of the EU. Washington and Brussels recently have stepped up efforts to push forward EU-mediated dialogue between the two.
Gresa Kraja in Pristina, Kosovo, and Jovana Gec and Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed.