The United States, NATO and the European Union have called for maximum restraint in northern Kosovo as authorities closed a third border crossing on Wednesday and tensions with local Serbs escalated over its 2008 independence.
For more than 20 years, Kosovo has been a source of tension between the West, which has supported its independence, and Russia, which is backing Serbia in its efforts to block Kosovo’s membership in international organizations, including the UN.
“We call on everyone to exercise maximum restraint, take immediate action to unconditionally de-escalate the situation, and refrain from provocation, threats or intimidation,” the EU and US said in a joint statement.
The NATO mission in Kosovo, KFOR, said it was supporting dialogue between all parties to defuse tensions, which included Serb blockades of major arteries by trucks and other heavy vehicles and violent clashes with police.
On Monday, Serbia brought its army to a state of maximum combat readiness.
The Kremlin, for its part, has refuted Kosovo’s allegations that Russia is exerting influence on Serbia to destabilize the situation in Kosovo, saying that Serbia is protecting the rights of ethnic Serbs.
A former Kosovo Serb police officer whose arrest provoked violent protests by the Kosovo Serb minority has been released from custody and placed under house arrest at the request of prosecutors, a Pristina trial court spokesman told Reuters.
Dejan Pantic was arrested on December 10 for attacking a serving policeman, since then Serbs in northern Kosovo have exchanged fire with police and set up more than 10 roadblocks demanding his release.
The court’s decision outraged representatives of the Kosovo government, including Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Minister of Justice Albulena Hadjiu.
“I don’t know how to understand this and how it is possible that someone who is accused of such a serious crime related to terrorism is placed under house arrest,” Hadjiu said.
“I am very curious to know who is the prosecutor who is filing this request, who is the pre-trial judge who approves it,” Kurti said.
Pantić was one of many Serbs who left the police and other institutions after Pristina said it would enforce a law requiring Serbs to scrap Serbian license plates from before the 1998–1999 guerrilla uprising that led to Kosovo’s independence.
After Pantić’s release, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić called on ethnic Serbs in Kosovo to end their protests against the Pristina government, assuring them that they would not be prosecuted, a Serbian official said Wednesday.
Petar Petkovic, head of the Serbian government office for Kosovo, said Vučić and Serbs from northern Kosovo would meet later Wednesday to announce whether the barricades would be removed.
Serbs in northern Kosovo, which they believe is still part of Serbia, are resisting any move they see as anti-Serb.
Two border crossings between Serbia and Kosovo were closed on December 10, and the third, the largest for road freight, Merdare, was closed to traffic on Wednesday, disrupting travel for Kosovars working elsewhere in Europe from returning home for the holidays.
Kosovo’s interior minister, Celal Shvechla, said on Tuesday that Serbia is seeking to destabilize the situation in Kosovo. Serbia says it just wants to protect its minority there.
Some 50,000 Serbs living in northern Kosovo refuse to recognize the government of Pristina or Kosovo’s status as a separate country. They have the support of many Serbs in Serbia and its government.
Albanian-majority Kosovo declared independence with Western support after the 1998-1999 war, in which NATO intervened to protect ethnic Albanian citizens.