(Bloomberg) — Germany called on Serbs to dismantle “illegal” barricades on Kosovo’s border that expanded overnight to a key crossing after weeks of protests that have brought the region to the verge of a renewed conflict.
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Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic put his nation’s military on high alert on Monday to respond if violence erupts between neigboring Kosovo’s Serb minority and its ethnic-Albanian authorities. He toured army units in an area bordering Kosovo late Tuesday.
Vucic has accused Kosovo’s government of trying to push out the remaining ethnic Serbs in the region. The Pristina-based administration, meanwhile, accuses Serbia of fomenting the protests in a bid to thwart Kosovo’s right to sovereignty after it declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Serbia, whose troops were driven out of Kosovo after a 1998-1999 war, refuses to recognize Kosovo as a country.
Tensions continued to rise Tuesday after Serbs erected another blockade. Kosovo’s Foreign Ministry advised travelers to avoid the main road entry from Serbia at Merdare and accused “Serbian criminal groups” of staging the protest, according to a message on Facebook.
“The institutions of Kosovo will not talk and cooperate with criminals, but will arrest them,” Kosovo’s government said in a statement Wednesday. “Placing barricades on the street is an illegal, unacceptable act and will not be tolerated.”
A spokesman for Germany’s Foreign Ministry said that the government in Berlin is “very concerned” about the tensions and called on Serbs to dismantle “the illegal barricades.”
“Yesterday’s blockade of the Merdare border crossing on the Serbian side further aggravates the situation,” spokesman Christofer Burger said at a regular news conference in Berlin. “The Kosovo Serbs should immediately clear these barricades in Kosovo. Serbs have a particular responsibility here.”
Germany also urged Kosovo to return the implementation of a previous agreement with Serbia that will give more autonomy to ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo to the agenda of EU-led talks. Normalizing ties between both sides is a requirement for either to join the European Union.
Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti has refused to grant autonomy to the Serb community. Tensions flared this year when his government tried to enforce new rules requiring Serbs switch to car plates and personal documents issued by Pristina rather than Belgrade. Kosovo authorities have stepped up police presence in the north.
Many of the roughly 100,000 ethnic Serbs still living in Kosovo have been protesting against alleged mistreatment by Kosovo officials and demand the release of people held by police.
Vucic posted on his Instagram page a picture with Serbian top army chief Milan Mojsilovic on Wednesday, thanking members of security troops for “courage and dedication in preserving vital interest of our country and survival of Serbian people in Kosovo.”
Serbia has asked the NATO-led KFOR force, which has been deployed to ensure peace since last century, to allow it to redeploy troops in Kosovo to protect the Serb population there. KFOR has called for calm, urging the foes to avoid actions that can escalate the crisis. Germany criticized Vucic’s government for exacerbating tensions.
“Nationalistic rhetoric such as we have heard from Serbs in recent weeks is completely unacceptable,” said Burger, the German Foreign Ministry spokesman. “The ramping up of military presence near the Serbian border with Kosovo sends a completely wrong signal.”
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