Kosovo closes two border crossings after local Serbs block roads

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) – Kosovo police said they closed two border crossings in the volatile north after local Serbs blocked roads and fired shots at police in protest at an order to switch Serb car license plates to Kosovan ones within two months.

Fourteen years after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, some 50,000 Serbs living in the north use 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 more than 100 countries but not by Serbia or Russia.

The government of Prime Minister Albin Kurti said it would give Serbs a transitional period of 60 days starting Aug. 1 to get Kosovo license plates, a year after giving up trying to impose them due to similar protests.

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The government also decided that as of Aug. 1, all citizens from Serbia visiting Kosovo would have to get an extra document at the border to grant them permission to enter.

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

The protesters parked trucks filled with gravel and other heavy machinery on roads leading to the two border crossings, Jarinje and Bernjak, in a territory where Serbs form a majority.

As a consequence, Kosovo police said they had to close the border crossings. “We call on all citizens to use other border crossings,” the police said on their Facebook page.

Police said there were shots fired “in the direction of police units but fortunately no one was wounded”.

It also said angry protesters beat up several Albanians passing on the roads that had been blocked and that some cars had been attacked.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova blamed the heightened tension on what she called “groundless discriminatory rules” imposed by Kosovo authorities and called for moves to restore calm.

“This is yet another step to evict the Serb population of Kosovo and eliminate Kosovo Serb institutions upholding the rights of the Serb population against the arbitrary nature of the Pristina radicals,” Zakharova wrote on Telegram.

“We call on Pristina and the United States and European Union standing behind it to stop the provocations and observe the rights of Serbs in Kosovo.”

Air raid sirens were heard 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 over license plates, Kosovo’s government deployed special police forces and Belgrade flew fighter jets close to the border.

Tensions between the two countries are now at their highest in years and Kosovo’s fragile peace is maintained by a NATO mission which has 3,770 troops on the ground. Italian peacekeepers were visible in and around Mitrovica on Sunday.

The two countries committed in 2013 to a dialogue sponsored by the European Union 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 and Daniel Wallis

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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