Kosovo delays plan for volatile north as tensions rise near Serbian border

Kosovo delays plan for volatile north as tensions rise near Serbian border

Protesters set up roadblocks and shots were fired after Pristina brought in rules that would mean Serbs in Kosovo must use Kosovo licence plates

Gendarmeries and security forces block the road as security measures taken around Mitrovica while air raid sirens heard along near the Kosovo/Serbian border

The Kosovo government postponed implementation of a decision that would oblige Serbs in the north of the country to apply for car license plates issued by Pristina institutions after tensions rose between police and local communities.

Late on Sunday protesters parked trucks filled with gravel and other heavy machinery on roads leading to two border crossings, Jarinje and Bernjak, in a territory where Serbs form a majority. Kosovo police said they had to close the border crossings.

“The overall security situation in the Northern municipalities of Kosovo is tense,” Nato-led mission to Kosovo KFOR said in a statement. The statement said KFOR was “monitoring closely” and “prepared to intervene if stability is jeopardised”.

In Moscow, Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova blamed the heightened tension on what she called “groundless discriminatory rules” imposed by Kosovo authorities

Fourteen years after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, 50,000 Serbs living in the north use license plates and documents issued by Serbian authorities, refusing to recognise institutions under the capital, Pristina. Kosovo has been recognised as an independent state by more than 100 countries but not by Serbia or Russia.

The government of prime minister Albin Kurti had said it would give Serbs a transitional period of 60 days to get Kosovo license plates, one year after giving up trying to impose them due to similar protests.

The government also decided that as of 1 August, 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.

But following tensions on Sunday evening and consultations with EU and US ambassadors, the government said it would delay its plan for one month, and start implementation on 1 September.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell welcomed the delay.

“Expect all roadblocks to be removed immediately,” Borrell said in a tweet, adding that open issues should be addressed through EU-facilitated dialogue and focus on comprehensive normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia.

Earlier on Sunday, 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.

Air raid sirens were heard for more than three hours in the small town of North Mitrovica inhabited mainly by Serbs.

One 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 remain high 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.