Kosovo government delays plan for restive north after rising tensions

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) – The Kosovo government has postponed implementation of a decision requiring Serbs in the north of the country to apply for vehicle license plates issued by Pristina institutions due to tensions between police and communities that have put up roadblocks.

Late on Sunday, the demonstrators stopped trucks filled with gravel and other heavy machinery on the roads leading to the border crossings of Jarinje and Prncak, in an area where Serbs are majority. Kosovo police said they had to close the border crossings.

“The overall security situation in the northern Kosovo municipalities is tense,” the NATO-led mission in Kosovo KFOR said in a statement.

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

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 to obtain Kosovo registration plates, a year after it abandoned 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.

But following the tensions on Sunday evening and consultations with the ambassadors of the European Union and the United States, the government said it would delay its plan by a month, and begin implementation on September 1.

Earlier on Sunday, police said shots were fired “in the direction of the police units but fortunately no one was hurt”.

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

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 remain high, and the 3,770-strong NATO mission on the ground maintains Kosovo’s fragile peace. Italian peacekeepers were seen in and around Mitrovica on Sunday.

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, Daniel Wallis and Sandra Mahler

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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