Kosovo has closed its biggest border crossing after protesters blocked it on the Serbian side to support their ethnic kin in Kosovo in refusing to recognise the country’s independence.
Wednesday’s move has left only three entry points between the two countries open, with two other crossings on the Serbian border closed by similar protests on their Kosovar sides since December 10.
The latest protest came hours after Serbia said it had put its army on the highest possible level of alert following weeks of escalating tensions between Belgrade and Pristina.
Serbs in Serbia used a truck and tractors on Tuesday to create the latest roadblock, close to the Merdare crossing on Kosovo’s eastern border, Belgrade-based media reported.
The obstruction is preventing thousands of Kosovars who work elsewhere in Europe from returning home for holidays.
About 50,000 Serbs living in ethnically divided northern Kosovo refuse to recognise the government in Pristina or the status of Kosovo as a country separate from Serbia. They have the support of many Serbs in Serbia and its government.
The closure in effect
“If you have already entered Serbia then you have to use other border crossings … or go through North Macedonia,” Kosovo’s foreign ministry said on its Facebook page, announcing the closure of the Merdare crossing.
The closure took effect at midnight, though the crossing was apparently already unusable.
The Merdare entry point is Kosovo’s most important for road freight. The country has international rail links.
Since December 10, Serbs in northern Kosovo have exchanged fire with police and erected more than 10 roadblocks in and around Mitrovica. On Tuesday, two more roadblocks were erected in the north.
The developments followed the arrest of former Serb policeman Dejan Pantic, who was detained for “terrorism” after allegedly assaulting serving police officers during an earlier protest.
On Wednesday, Pantic’s lawyer told the Associated Press news agency that his client would be released from custody and put under house arrest.
“The (Kosovo) police are obliged to transfer Pantic to the address where he lives” in Serb-populated northern Kosovo, the lawyer said.
But Pantovic warned that carrying out the order could prove problematic as Kosovo officers would need to cross the Serb barricades while transporting Pantic.
Meanwhile, Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti criticised the court’s decision to release Pantic to house arrest.
“I’m curious to know who is the prosecutor that makes a request and judge who approves a decision to place someone on house arrest when they have a standing terrorism charge,” Kurti said at a news conference.
Kosovo’s interior minister has accused Serbia, under the influence of Russia, of attempting to destabilise his country via the protests.
Serbia denies it is trying to destabilise its neighbour and says it only wants to protect the Serbian minority living in what is now Kosovan territory but is not recognised by Belgrade.
Moscow said on Wednesday that it supported Serbia’s attempts to protect ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo but denied Pristina’s accusation that Russia was somehow stoking tensions in an attempt to sow chaos across the Balkans.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was “wrong” to search for a destructive Russian influence.
“Serbia is a sovereign country, and naturally, it protects the rights of Serbs who live nearby in such difficult conditions, and naturally reacts harshly when these rights are violated,” Peskov said.
“Having very close allied relations, historical and spiritual relations with Serbia, Russia is very closely monitoring what is happening, how the rights of Serbs are respected and ensured,” he added. “And, of course, we support Belgrade in the actions that are being taken.”
Decades of turmoil
Albanian-majority Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 with the backing of the West, following a 1998-99 war in which NATO intervened to protect ethnic Albanian citizens.
Kosovo’s government has asked NATO’s peacekeeping force for the country, the approximately 4,000-strong KFOR, to clear the barricades. But KFOR has no authority to act on Serbian soil.
NATO’s mission in Kosovo said on Wednesday that it supported dialogue between all parties to defuse tensions in the north of the country.
“It is paramount that all involved avoid any rhetoric or actions that can cause tensions and escalate the situation,” Major General Angelo Michele Ristuccia said in a statement.
“Solutions should be sought through dialogue,” he added.
Meanwhile, the European Union and the United States expressed alarm over the current situation.
“We call on everyone to exercise maximum restraint, to take immediate action to unconditionally de-escalate the situation, and to refrain from provocations, threats, or intimidation,” they said in a joint statement released by the US State Department.
“We also expect Kosovo and Serbia to return to fostering an environment conducive to reconciliation, regional stability, and cooperation for the benefit of their citizens.”
Germany’s government also voiced alarm over the ongoing tensions. A spokesperson for the country’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday that Berlin was focused on efforts to have barricades along Kosovo and Serbia’s borders removed.
Serbia, supported by its allies Russia and China, does not recognise the statehood of its former province but most Western countries do, including the US.