Kosovo closes two border crossings after local Serbs block roads

Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, during a press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Schulz in Berlin, 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 against an order to replace Serbian car license plates with Kosovo ones within two months.

Fourteen years after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, about 50,000 Serbs living in the north are using license plates and documents issued by Serbian authorities, refusing to recognize institutions affiliated with the capital, Pristina. Kosovo has been recognized as an independent country by more than 100 countries but not by Serbia or Russia.

Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s government said it would give Serbs a 60-day transition period from August 1 to obtain Kosovo registration plates, a year after giving up an attempt to impose them due to similar protests.

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The government has also decided that from August 1, all citizens of Serbia visiting Kosovo will have to obtain an additional document at the border to grant them permission to enter.

The Belgrade authorities apply a similar rule to Kosovar residents visiting Serbia.

Demonstrators parked trucks full of gravel and other heavy machinery on the roads leading to the two border crossings, Garini and Prjak, in an area where Serbs are a majority.

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As a result, the 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.

The police said shots were fired “in the direction of the police units, but fortunately no one was injured.”

She also said that angry demonstrators beat many Albanians who were passing on roads that were closed and that some cars were attacked.

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

“This is another step for the expulsion of the Serb population of Kosovo and the elimination of Kosovo Serb institutions that support the rights of the Serb population against the abusive nature of the Pristina extremists,” Zakharova wrote on Telegram.

“We call on Pristina, the United States and the European Union to stand behind them to stop provocations and respect the rights of Serbs in Kosovo,” he added.

The sirens sounded more than three hours ago in the small northern town of Mitrovica, mainly inhabited by Serbs. A year ago, after local Serbs blocked the same roads with license plates, the Kosovo government deployed special police forces and Belgrade launched fighter planes near the border.

Tensions between the two countries are now at their highest level in years, and a NATO mission of 3,770 soldiers on the ground is maintaining the fragile peace in Kosovo. Italian peacekeepers were seen in and around Mitrovica on Sunday.

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In 2013, the two countries committed to an EU-sponsored dialogue to try to resolve outstanding issues but little progress was made.

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Fatos Beitsy reports; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Ron Popesky and Daniel Wallis

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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