Hundreds of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo have protested to pressure the government into allowing them to vote in neighbouring Serbia’s April 3 general election.
Demonstrators gathered on Friday in Mitrovica, 45km (28 miles) north of Pristina, with banners reading “We want our human rights” and “Kurti won’t drive us away from Kosovo”, referring to Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti.
The protesters later marched to a bridge that divides Mitrovica.
Most of Kosovo’s ethnic Serb population lives north of Mitrovica, close to Serbia’s border.
Hundreds of people also protested in Gracanica, a commune located 10km (six miles) from Kosovo’s capital where ethnic Serb residents are concentrated.
Kurti has said Kosovo and Serbia need to have a preliminary agreement on holding the election to permit the voting.
In a letter to the European Union office in Pristina, Kurti wrote that “Serbia’s illegal structures are trying to hold an election in our territory as if our government did not exist,” the KosovaPress news agency reported.
In previous Serbian elections, ethnic Serbs in Kosovo voted there under monitoring by international observers. That did not happen when Serbia held a referendum earlier this year.
‘Risk of escalation’
The United States, France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom expressed “concern at the risk of escalation or violence” on Friday and urged demonstrators to protest peacefully.
They also called on Kosovo and Serbia “to act with restraint and refrain from any rhetoric or action that could increase tensions”.
On Wednesday, the US and the four European countries – collectively known as the Quint – criticised Kosovo’s rejection of what they called their “constructive proposal” for allowing the Balkan nation’s ethnic Serb minority to vote in Serbia’s election.
They did not say what the rejected proposal entailed.
A bloody 1998-1999 conflict between Serbia and Albanian separatists in Kosovo, then a Serbian province, left more than 12,000 people dead and about 1,600 still missing. NATO’s intervention in the form of a bombing campaign on Serbia ended the war.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a move recognised by the US and most EU nations.
Serbia has refused to recognise Kosovo as a separate nation after 11 years of EU-brokered negotiations.