Mitrovica, Kosovo (Reuters) – minority Serbs in northern Kosovo said on Saturday they had left their positions in state institutions, including the government, police and courts, in protest of Pristina’s order for them to start using Kosovo vehicle license plates.
A long-running dispute over the license plate has raised tensions between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo, which gained independence in 2008 and is home to a small ethnic Serb minority in the north supported by Belgrade.
After a meeting of Serbian political representatives in northern Kosovo, Communities and Returns Minister Goran Rakic said he is resigning from his position in the Pristina government.
He told reporters that fellow representatives of the 50,000-strong Serb minority in the north had also resigned from their jobs in municipal administrations, courts, police, parliament and government in Pristina.
Rakesh said they would not consider returning unless Pristina rescinded the order for them to exchange the license plates of their old car, which dated back to the 1990s when Kosovo was part of Serbia, to those of the state of Kosovo.
He added that they also demanded the formation of a federation of Serbian municipalities that would give the Serbian-majority regions more autonomy.
Prime Minister Albin Kurti urged Serbs not to “boycott or abandon Kosovo’s institutions”.
“They serve all of us, every single one of you. Don’t fall prey to political manipulation and geopolitical games,” Courty added in a Facebook post.
An Interior Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that some police units had extended their shifts to 12 from the usual eight hours to make up for the absence of Serbian officers.
NATO, which still has about 3,700 soldiers to maintain the fragile peace, has asked Pristina and Belgrade to show restraint and prevent escalation. “NATO remains vigilant and ready to intervene if stability is jeopardized,” NATO Deputy Secretary-General Mircea Gioanna wrote on Twitter after speaking with the European Union’s envoy to Kosovo and Serbia, Miroslav Lajac.
On the northern side of Mitrovica, inhabited mainly by Serbs, there was no police to be seen. Some Swiss soldiers and Italian Carabinieri, part of the NATO peacekeeping forces, were the only ones in uniform on the main square.
In Serbia, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said her government “stands by our brave and proud people of Kosovo”.
The Kosovo government said it will start issuing fines this month to Serbian drivers who use old plates before independence, and will seize vehicles whose registration numbers have not been changed by April 21, 2023.
Kosovo’s main backers, the United States and the European Union, urged Kurti to delay the implementation of the license plate ruling for another 10 months but he refused.
Written by Ivana Sekularak; Editing by Helen Popper
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