By ZENEL ZHINIPOTOKU and LLAZAR SEMINI
PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) – The border between Kosovo and Serbia was blocked again on Tuesday by Kosovo Serbs protesting against the decision of the Kosovar authorities to start removing Serbian license plates from cars entering the country . The traffic chaos has raised fears that it will spark much deeper tensions between the two Balkan neighbors.
Serbia does not recognize its former province of Kosovo as a separate nation and regards their mutual border only as an âadministrativeâ and temporary border.
Trucks blocked the road to the Jarinje and Brnjak border post where small groups of Serbs spent the night in tents. An Associated Press photographer was not allowed to drive on the road, but others crossed the border on foot.
Tensions rose on Monday when Kosovo special police with armored vehicles were sent to the border to impose a rule on temporary replacement of Serbian license plates on cars while driving in Kosovo. It’s a minor annoyance for drivers with great symbolic impact. Kosovo authorities say they are simply copying a program of the Serbian police, which for years has been removing license plates from cars registered in Kosovo entering Serbia. Drivers then have to pay 5 euros for a temporary license plate.
Kosovo authorities have said that a 2016 agreement with Serbia reached in talks mediated by the European Union has expired and that only the appropriate Kosovo symbols are now valid.
Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla told The Associated Press that Kosovo Serb citizens “should not fear state institutions, the police”. He said that many Kosovo Serbs were “manipulated” by the Serbian authorities.
Hundreds of Kosovo Serbs drove to the border in their cars and trucks, blocking the roads leading to the crossing points. Kosovo police fired tear gas at protesters on Monday, but they stayed.
Igor Simic, a Kosovo Serb official, said it was “a democratic protest” by the Kosovo Serbs.
âThey are just trying to save their human rights to free movement,â he said.
Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti held a meeting with Western Ambassadors from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the European Union, telling them that “yesterday’s decision was not provocation or discrimination against anyone â.
âOn this reciprocity of temporary license plates for cars, either Kosovo and Serbia are right or they are wrong. Thus, they will keep the license plates of both countries or remove them, âKurti said.
The Kosovar Prime Minister spoke with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Monday about the matter.
Thousands of people have been killed and over a million have been left homeless after a bloody 1998-1999 crackdown by Serbian troops against Kosovo Albanian separatists. The war did not end until after NATO intervened. Kosovo then declared independence in 2008. It has been recognized by the United States and other Western countries, but not by Serbia and its allies Russia and China.
Thousands of NATO-led peacekeepers, including US troops, remain deployed in Kosovo, trying to avoid lingering ethnic tensions between the majority of Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo Serbs.
The EU and the US urged Kosovo and Serbia to show restraint “immediately and without delay” and to refrain from unilateral action.
ââ It is important to reduce tensions, restore a peaceful atmosphere and allow freedom of movement. We are ready to facilitate talks on all open issues, âtweeted Miroslav Lajcak, EU Special Envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue.
Populist Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic called the Kosovo car license plate decision a “criminal act” after a meeting of the Serbian state’s highest security body on Tuesday and insisted that the police Special Kosovo retreat from the Serbian-dominated north.
“We regard as inappropriate any statement equivalent to the responsibility of Belgrade and Pristina,” said Vucic, referring to the EU and the United States urging both sides to ease tensions. “The only solution is the withdrawal of all the troops, then we can go to Brussels and discuss everything and eventually come to an agreement.”
Llazar Semini reported from Tirana, Albania, Jovana Gec from Belgrade, Serbia.