US, EU Call for ‘Maximum Restraint’ as Kosovo Tensions Rise

American Age Official

(Bloomberg) — The US and the European Union called for an immediate end of tensions in northern Kosovo, where local Serbs have confronted predominantly ethnic Albanian authorities with road blockades and protests for more than two weeks.

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The standoff between the wartime foes has brought the region to the verge of a renewed conflict. The minority Serb community in Kosovo is backed by the government of neighboring Serbia and President Aleksandar Vucic, who has traded accusations with the Kosovo government led by Premier Albin Kurti.

“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,” the US State Department and the EU said in a joint statement on Wednesday. “We are working with President Vučić and Prime Minister Kurti to find a political solution.”

The Pristina-based administration accuses Serbia of fomenting the protests in a bid to thwart Kosovo’s 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.

Kosovo’s Foreign Ministry advised travelers to avoid the main road entry from Serbia at Merdare, where a new blockade was erected late on Tuesday, 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.

Vucic has accused Kosovo’s government of trying to force remaining ethnic Serbs to flee their homes. He put his nation’s military on high alert on Monday to respond if violence erupts between neighboring Kosovo’s Serb minority and its ethnic-Albanian authorities.

He toured army units in an area bordering Kosovo late Tuesday and thanked them for “courage and dedication in preserving vital interest of our country and survival of Serbian people in Kosovo.”

Germany, meanwhile, called on Serbs to dismantle “illegal” barricades on Kosovo’s border that expanded overnight to a key crossing. A spokesman for Germany’s Foreign Ministry said that the government in Berlin is “very concerned” and called on Serbs to dismantle “the illegal barricades.”

“The Kosovo Serbs should immediately clear these barricades in Kosovo,” spokesman Christofer Burger told reporters in Berlin.

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. Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti has refused to grant autonomy to the Serb community and stepped up police presence in the north.

“All dialog obligations must be fully implemented without delay,” EU and US said in their statement.

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.

(Updates throughout with US, EU statement.)

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