Ethnic Serbs who have been blocking roads in northern Kosovo for 19 days have agreed to start removing barricades, bowing to calls by the United States and European Union to defuse tensions.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who met Serbs from northern Kosovo in the southwestern Serbian town of Raska, said the barricades will begin coming down on Thursday morning.
“It is a long process and it will take a while,” Vucic said.
Serbs in northern Kosovo, which they believe to be still part of Serbia, have resisted any moves to legitimatize the breakaway republic since the 1998-99 uprising that led to Kosovo’s independence.
Serbia put its army on its highest alert over rising tensions which spring from a squabble over car license plates.
For over 20 years, Kosovo has been a source of tension between the West, which backed its independence, and Russia, which supports Serbia in its efforts to block Kosovo’s membership of international organizations, including the United Nations.
Roads were blocked with heavy vehicles and trucks by Serb protesters, who were angered about the arrest of Dejan Pantic, a former Kosovo Serb police officer, and due to the phaseout of Serbia-issued car license plates that are still being used in the country, which unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in February 2008.
Pantic was one of many Serbs who left the police and other institutions after Pristina said it would enforce a law requiring Serbs to scrap Serbia-issued car license plates.
The former Kosovo Serb policeman, whose arrest triggered violent protests by Kosovo’s Serb minority, was released from custody and put under house arrest after a request from the prosecutors’ office, a spokesperson for the Pristina Basic Court told Reuters.
Pantic was arrested on December 10 for assaulting another police officer. Since then, Serbs in northern Kosovo have exchanged fire with police and erected roadblocks, demanding his release.
He was part of a mass resignation of Serbs from the force in November after authorities in Kosovo’s capital Pristina said they would require drivers to scrap Serbian license plates dating to before the 1998-99 Kosovo War.
A court decision to release Pantic from custody and put him under house arrest angered Kosovo government officials, including Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Justice Minister Albulena Haxhiu, but mediators say it helped defuse the tension.
“I don’t know how to understand it and how it is possible that someone who is accused of such a serious crime related to terrorism goes to house arrest,” Haxhiu said.
Vucic also said that the United States and European Union, which are mediating bilateral talks between Serbia and Kosovo to resolve outstanding issues, have guaranteed that none of the Serbs who set up barricades will be prosecuted.
Removal of the barricades is expected to defuse tensions between Belgrade and Pristina.
Hundreds of police officers, judges, prosecutors, and other state workers from the Serb minority in Kosovo quit their jobs after the government in Pristina ruled that local drivers must finally replace car plates issued by northern Kosovo Serb municipal authorities loyal to Belgrade, with Kosovo state ones.
Under the new regulations proposed by Pristina, all citizens will have to fill out provisional identity card documents rather than use their Serbian IDs while in Kosovo. In addition, vehicles with Serbian license plates must affix provisional Kosovar car tags upon entry.
The prime minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, explained the new rules as countermeasures to neighboring Serbia, which has not recognized Kosovan identity documents for several years. Upon entry to Serbia, Kosovan citizens receive a document similar to the one that Kosovo now wants to introduce for travelers with Serbian identity documents.
For more than 20 years, Kosovo has been a source of tension between the West, which backed its independence, and Russia, which supports Serbia in its efforts to block Kosovo’s membership in global organisations including the United Nations.
The United States, NATO and European Union urged maximum restraint in the north of Kosovo, as authorities closed a third border crossing on Wednesday and tensions escalated with local Serbs over its 2008 independence.
NATO’s mission in Kosovo, KFOR, said it supported dialogue between all parties to defuse tensions, which have included Serb roadblocks on major arteries by trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles and violent clashes with police.