Barrier removed at Kosovo-Serbia crossing, but ‘mistrust remains’
State television confirmed that in a move to defuse tensions in a volatile region, the barrier near the main border crossing between Kosovo and Serbia was removed Thursday.
The report stated that cars and trucks were queuing in front of the border point from the Serbian side where the barrier was placed, while the Kosovo police confirmed the official reopening of the crossing.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic announced the removal of the roadblocks following calls from Washington and Brussels to calm tensions, one of the worst in years in northern Kosovo.
“The barriers will be removed, but mistrust remains,” Vucic was quoted by state television RTS as saying late on Wednesday during his meeting with Kosovo Serb representatives near the border.
Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, after a bitter war in the late 1990s.
But Belgrade still refuses to recognize it and encourages Kosovo’s 120,000 Serbs to challenge Pristina’s authority – especially in the north, where they form the majority.
The latest unrest erupted on December 10, when Serbs erected barricades to protest the arrest of a former policeman suspected of involvement in attacks against Albanian police officers – effectively shutting down traffic at two border crossings.
After the barricades were erected, the Kosovo police and international peacekeeping forces were attacked in several shooting incidents, while the Serbian armed forces were put on high alert this week.
The European Union and the United States expressed concern about the situation, urged immediate de-escalation and said they were working with the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo to seek a political solution to the crisis.
Feeling cheated and abused
The situation in northern Kosovo was calm Thursday morning as patrols by NATO-led peacekeepers and the EU rule of law mission EULEX were visible, according to an AFP correspondent.
An AFP correspondent reported that two trucks serving as a roadblock on a bridge in the restive town of Mitrovica were burned overnight. The cause of the fire is not yet known.
About a dozen demonstrators who were still at a checkpoint in Rudari near Mitrovica expressed their dissatisfaction with the decision to remove the checkpoints.
“It makes no sense, we fought for rights that were not achieved, we feel deceived and violated,” a 25-year-old man who declined to be named told AFP.
“Why did we get to the barricades, if it all ended that way?” asked a 38-year-old protester, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
In a move that de-escalated the situation, a court in Pristina on Wednesday ordered the release of the former police officer, who cited Serbs in his detention as the main reason for setting up the barricades, from prison and placed him under house arrest.
Kosovo’s main border crossing with Serbia was closed on Wednesday after dozens of protesters on the Serbian side of the border used trucks and tractors to stop traffic leading into it.
Northern Kosovo has been in a state of tension since November when hundreds of ethnic Serb workers in the Kosovo police as well as in the judicial branch, including judges and prosecutors, quit their jobs.
They were protesting against a controversial decision to ban Serbs living in Kosovo from using vehicle license plates issued from Belgrade – a policy that Pristina eventually rescinded.
The mass strikes created a security vacuum in Kosovo, which Pristina has tried to fill by deploying ethnic Albanian police officers to the region.
Belgrade’s ally Russia on Wednesday expressed support for Serbia and said it was following developments “closely”.
Kosovo’s population of 1.8 million is predominantly ethnic Albanians.