Kosovo Reopens Main Border Crossing After Roadblock On Serbian Side Removed

By RFE/RL's Balkan Service

Kosovar authorities have reopened the main border crossing with Serbia after a barricade that was blocking access on the Serbian side was removed following a pledge by Belgrade that all roadblocks set up by ethnic Serbs in Kosovo would be dismantled.

Kosovar police confirmed to RFE/RL that the Merdare border crossing had been reopened immediately after the barricade, located two kilometers from border, was removed.

Merdare is Kosovo's most important border crossing for road freight, and its closure also created additional difficulties for Kosovars working abroad who are returning home for the holidays.

Barricades in the village of Rudare, which is located in the municipality of Zvecan, were removed later on December 29, RFE/RL journalists reported from the field. Barricades have also been removed in North Mitrovica and from the streets in Leposaviq and Zubin Potok.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic early on December 29 said all roadblocks set up by ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo would be removed within the next 24 to 48 hours, following calls by the United States and the European Union to de-escalate tensions in the volatile region.

Ethnic Serbs gathered at the Merdare crossing told RFE/RL they were only "partially satisfied" with the agreement reached after talks with Vucic late on December 28.

It was not immediately clear if all barricades blocking several border crossings between Kosovo and Serbia had been removed following Vucic's pledge.

In the northern city of Mitrovica, trucks that had formed a roadblock were set on fire early on December 29, apparently by ethnic Serbs who did not agree with Vucic's call, RFE/RL correspondents reported from the area.

Northern Kosovo, where ethnic Serbs are a majority, has been on edge since November, when hundreds of ethnic Serbian policemen, judges, and prosecutors walked off the job in protest at a decision by Pristina to ban Belgrade-issued license plates inside Kosovo.

On December 28, Washington and the EU voiced concern about the tense situation in the north of Kosovo.

"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," the joint EU-U.S. statement said.

The statement said the EU and the United States were working with Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti "to find a political solution in order to defuse the tensions and agree on the way forward in the interest of stability, safety and well-being of all local communities."

Kosovar authorities sought to defuse tensions, announcing the release on December 28 of ethnic Serbian ex-police officer Dejan Pantic, whose arrest on December 10 prompted hundreds of outraged ethnic Serbs to set up the roadblocks in northern Kosovo, paralyzing traffic through two border crossings.

Pantic, who had been arrested on suspicion of being involved in an attack on Central Election Commission officials, was to be placed under house arrest, his lawyer told RFE/RL.

The EU-U.S. joint statement welcomed assurances from Kosovo that no lists of Kosovo Serb citizens to be arrested or prosecuted for holding peaceful protests or setting up barricades exist.

"At the same time, rule of law must be respected, and any form of violence is unacceptable and will not be tolerated," the statement said.

Kosovo, which has an overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian majority, broke away from Serbia after a war in 1998-99.

It declared independence in 2008, but Belgrade has never recognized it and encourages Kosovo's 120,000 ethnic Serbs to defy the central Kosovar government's authority.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP