NATO peacekeepers oversee the lifting of roadblocks in Kosovo

ZUPCE, Kosovo, Aug 1 (Reuters) – NATO-led peacekeepers backed by helicopters oversaw on Monday the removal of roadblocks protesters had set up in northern Kosovo, where political tensions have flared more than two decades after a crisis that ended with NATO airstrikes.

The removal of the barricades came after Kosovo’s government postponed the implementation of a decision that would require ethnic Serbs, the majority in the north, to apply for documents and license plates issued by Kosovo institutions.

The situation has reignited rifts with Serbia and Russia, which do not recognize Western-aligned Kosovo as an independent state and have blocked its efforts to join the United Nations. Kosovo, recognized as a nation by more than 100 countries, is seeking to join NATO.

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The government’s decision to postpone follows consultations with US and EU ambassadors.

‚ÄúViolence will not be tolerated. Those who use violence will be punished by the rule of law with the force of law,” Prime Minister Albin Kurti told reporters on Monday. He said a total of nine roadblocks had been set up.

It was not immediately clear how many roadblocks had been removed. A Reuters reporter said a bridge near the Brnjak border crossing remained clogged in the afternoon.

Most roadblocks were lifted by 1:30 p.m. (11:30 GMT), but the border post had yet to reopen.

GROWING DISPUTE

Fourteen years after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, some 50,000 ethnic Serbs in the north still use license plates and papers issued by Serbian authorities, refusing to recognize the Kosovo government.

On Sunday, ethnic Serbs had parked heavy machinery, including trucks full of gravel, on roads near the border with Serbia to protest the new policy, which the government agreed to postpone until September 1.

After that date, local Serbs will have 60 days to switch to Kosovo license plates and accept documents issued at the border to Serbian citizens, including those living in Kosovo without local papers.

“Now, thank God, some escalation has been avoided overnight, but this situation has only been delayed for a month,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday.

Tensions with Serbia remain high and Kosovo’s fragile peace is maintained by NATO’s KFOR mission, which has 3,770 troops on the ground. The mission issued a statement on Sunday saying it stands ready to intervene in accordance with its mandate if stability is threatened.

Italian peacekeepers were visible in and around the northern city of Mitrovica on Sunday.

A Reuters witness saw KFOR helicopters flying over northern Kosovo, bordering Serbia. Peacekeepers were also present during the dismantling of roadblocks, standing on the side of the road and talking with residents.

Earlier on Monday, the government started issuing additional documents to Serbian citizens at the largest border crossing between Serbia and Kosovo, Merdare. The Kosovo government said it would stop issuing the documents once the roadblocks were removed.

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

Serbia and Kosovo 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; Written by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Frank Jack Daniel

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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