The roadblock near the main border crossing point between Kosovo and Serbia has been removed, according to public television RTS and the Kosovo police, announcing the decision which paves the way for the easing of growing tensions in the volatile region.
Cars and trucks lined up outside the border crossing on the Serbian side where the roadblock was set up, the report said on Thursday, while Kosovo police confirmed the crossing had officially reopened.
It came hours after Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said Serb protesters had agreed to start removing barricades that had blocked roads for 19 days in northern Kosovo.
Vucic, who met with northern Kosovo Serbs in the Serbian town of Raska, said on Wednesday evening the barricades would be removed but mistrust would remain.
“Those who play with [the] The very existence of Serbs in Kosovo must know that, even if we did not allow it now, we will not allow it in the future either,” he said.
The European Union and the United States, which are brokering talks between Belgrade and Pristina to resolve the tense dispute, have guaranteed that none of the Serbs who erected barricades will be prosecuted, he added.
The EU and the United States said in a joint statement on Wednesday that they welcome “the assurances from Kosovo leaders that there is no list of Kosovo Serb citizens to be arrested or prosecuted for peaceful protests/ barricades”.
“At the same time, the rule of law must be respected and any form of violence is unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” the statement added.
🇪🇺and 🇺🇸 call for maximum restraint and immediate de-escalation in northern Kosovo. We are working with Ptd Vučić and PM Kurti to find a political solution in the interests of stability, security and the well-being of all local communities. Full statement 👉 https://t.co/SiknNws9HZ
— Nabila Massrali (@NabilaEUspox) December 28, 2022
Serbian state media reported that Vucic traveled to the border with Kosovo for talks with Kosovo Serbs to try to persuade them to end their blockade.
“Think again…what do we get if there are barricades left?” I can tell you 500 things we can get if removed,” Vucic said at the meeting, state-controlled public broadcaster RTS reported.
Serbia had put its army on high alert on Monday as the situation in northern Kosovo appeared to spiral out of control, with Kosovo closing its biggest border crossing into Serbian territory on Wednesday.
On Tuesday evening, dozens of protesters on the Serbian side of the border used trucks and tractors to halt traffic leading to Merdare, the biggest crossing between the neighbors. The move forced Kosovo police to close the entry point on Wednesday.
“Such an illegal blockade has impeded the free movement and movement of people and goods, therefore we urge our citizens and compatriots to use other border points for movement,” a statement from the Kosovo Police said.
Pristina had asked the NATO-led peacekeepers to clear the barricades erected on Kosovo soil, adding that its own forces were also capable of eliminating the protesters.
The EU and US expressed concern over the situation and called for immediate de-escalation, saying they were working with Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti to seek a political solution to one of the worst outbreaks of violence in years between Balkan neighbours. .
“We call on everyone to exercise maximum restraint, to take immediate action to de-escalate the situation unconditionally and to refrain from any provocation, threat or intimidation,” they said in their joint statement.
Earlier on Wednesday, a former Kosovo Serb policeman, whose December 10 arrest sparked violent protests by Kosovo’s Serb minority – including roadblocks – was released and placed under house arrest after a request from the prosecutor’s office, a spokesman for the Pristina Basic Court told Reuters.
Dejan Pantic was arrested for assaulting a police officer on duty. The court’s decision angered Kosovo government officials, including Prime Minister Kurti and Justice Minister Albulena Haxhiu.
“I’m very curious to see who is the prosecutor making this request, who is the preliminary trial judge approving it,” Kurti said.
For more than 20 years, Kosovo has been a source of tension between the West, which supported its independence from Serbia in 2008, and Russia, which does not recognize Pristina and has supported Serbia in its efforts to block the Kosovo’s membership in global organizations, including the United Nations.
However, the Kremlin this week denied claims by Kosovo’s interior minister that Russia was influencing Serbia’s handling of ethnic tension to destabilize Kosovo, saying Serbia was defending the rights of ethnic Serbs.
The approximately 50,000 Serbs living in northern Kosovo, which they say is still part of Serbia, resist any initiative they see as anti-Serbian and refuse to recognize the government in Pristina or Kosovo’s status in as a separate country.
They have the support of many Serbs in Serbia and its government.
Albanian-majority Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, with Western backing, following a 1998-99 war in which NATO intervened against Serbian forces to protect the ethnic Albanian citizens.