KOSOVO, Dec 29 (AP): Kosovo reopened the country’s main border crossing with Serbia on Thursday after a nearby barricade that led to its closure was removed, while Serbia’s president said more than a dozen other Serb roadblocks in northern Kosovo also would be dismantled.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said Serbs would start removing their barricades on Thursday. The move could defuse weeks of tensions between Kosovo and Serbia that triggered fears of new clashes in the Balkans.
Kosovo had demanded that NATO-led peacekeepers remove the barricades, or said its forces would do it. Serbia then raised the combat readiness of its troops on the border with Kosovo, demanding an end to “attacks” against Kosovo Serbs.
The removal agreement was reached at a late-night crisis meeting with the leaders of Kosovo’s Serbs, Vucic said.
It followed the release from jail of a former Kosovo Serb police officer, whose detention on a terrorism change triggered protests and clashes in northern Kosovo. A court ordered him placed under house arrest Wednesday.
The roadblocks, which consist mostly of loaded heavy trucks, other vehicles and tents, were still in place as of mid-morning Thursday. Unknown assailants set fire to two trucks on a roadblock in the northern town of Mitrovica, Kosovo police said.
The former police officer, Dejan Pantic, was detained December 10 for “terrorism” after allegedly assaulting a Kosovo police officer during an earlier protest.
Kosovo’s president and prime minister have criticized a Kosovo court’s decision to release Pantic from jail.
“How is it possible for someone who is accused of terrorism to go from detention to house arrest,” President Vjosa Osmani said late Wednesday.
The main Merdare border crossing with Serbia closed down earlier this week because of a roadblock a few kilometres away, on the Serbian side of the border.
Kosovo police told expatriates heading to Kosovo from European countries for the holidays that they could again use that route instead of going through North Macedonia or other entry points.
The unrest over Pantic’s detention sparked tense standoffs and gunshots but no major clashes. However, international concerns grew of a new conflict in the Balkans while the war in Ukraine is raging as well.
A separatist rebellion by Kosovo’s majority Albanians led to a 1998-99 war that featured a brutal Serbian crackdown in the territory that was its province at the time.
NATO intervened in 1999 to stop the onslaught and push Serbia out of Kosovo. But Belgrade does not recognise Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence and has relied on Russia and China for backing.
Both Serbia and Kosovo have been told they must normalise relations in order to become members of the EU. Washington and Brussels recently have stepped up efforts to push forward EU-mediated dialogue between the former war foes.