Kosovo government postpones plan for volatile north after rising tensions

FILE PHOTO – Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti looks on during a news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin, Germany May 4, 2022. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

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MITROVICA, Kosovo, July 31 (Reuters) – The Kosovo government has postponed the implementation of a decision that would force Serbs in the north of the country to apply for license plates issued by institutions in Pristina due to tensions between police and local communities erecting roadblocks.

Late Sunday, protesters parked trucks full of gravel and other heavy machinery on the roads leading to the two border crossings, Jarinje and Bernjak, in territory where Serbs are the majority. Kosovo police said they must close border crossing points.

“The overall security situation in the municipalities of northern Kosovo is tense,” KFOR, a NATO-led mission in Kosovo, said in a statement.

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In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova blamed the rising tensions on what she called “baseless discriminatory rules” imposed by Kosovo authorities.

Fourteen years after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, some 50,000 Serbs living in the north are using license plates and documents issued by Serbian authorities, refusing to recognize institutions under the capital, Pristina. Kosovo has been recognized as an independent state by over 100 countries, but not by Serbia or Russia.

Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s government has said it will give Serbs a 60-day transition period to get Kosovo license plates, a year after backing out of imposing them due to similar protests.

The government has also decided that from August 1, all citizens of Serbia visiting Kosovo should obtain an additional document at the border to grant them permission to enter.

A similar rule is applied by Belgrade authorities to Kosovars visiting Serbia.

But following tensions on Sunday evening and consultations with EU and US ambassadors, the government announced it would delay its plan for a month and begin implementation on September 1.

Earlier on Sunday, police said shots were fired “in the direction of police units but fortunately no one was injured”.

He also said that angry demonstrators beat several Albanians who were passing on the roads that had been blocked and that some cars had been attacked.

Air raid sirens sounded for more than three hours in the small town of North Mitrovica inhabited mainly by Serbs.

A year ago, after local Serbs blocked the same roads because of license plates, the Kosovo government deployed special police forces and Belgrade flew fighter jets near the border.

Tensions between the two countries remain high and Kosovo’s fragile peace is maintained by a NATO mission with 3,770 troops on the ground. Italian blue helmets were visible on Sunday in Mitrovica and its surroundings.

The two countries engaged in a European Union-sponsored dialogue in 2013 to try to resolve outstanding issues, but little progress has been made.

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Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Ron Popeski, Daniel Wallis and Sandra Maler

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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