PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — The Kosovo-Serbia border on Tuesday remained blocked by ethnic Kosovo Serbs protesting a move by Kosovo authorities to start removing Serbian license plates from cars entering the country.
Trucks have blocked the road to the Jarinje and Brnjak border crossing where small groups of Serbs spent the night in tents. An Associated Press photographer wasn’t let onto the road. Other people crossed the border on foot.
Tensions soared Monday when Kosovo special police with armored vehicles were sent to the border to impose a rule on temporarily replacing Serb license plates from cars while they drive in Kosovo.
Kosovo authorities said a 2016 deal reached in European Union-mediated talks had expired and only proper Kosovo symbols are now valid.
Interior Minster Xhelal Svecla said that “Serb citizens should not fear anything” adding that “the measures are not against them or anyone else.”
Serbian police have for years been taking off registration plates from Kosovo-registered cars entering Serbia.
Hundreds of Kosovo Serbs drove to the border in their cars and trucks, blocking roads leading to the crossing points. Kosovo police fired tear gas at the protesters, but they continued to remain there and keep the road blocked.
Igor Simic, a Kosovo Serb official, said that is ”one democratic protest of the citizens of this area, Serbs from the northern part of Kosovo.”
“They are just trying to save their human rights for free movement, some basic thing that is in the basement ( base) of the European Union and its European values,” he said.
Serbia doesn’t recognize its former province of Kosovo as a separate state and considers the mutual border only as an “administrative” and temporary boundary.
Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti held a meeting with the Western powers’ ambassadors — United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the European Union — telling them that “yesterday’s decision was not a provocation or discrimination against anyone.”
“On this reciprocity of the temporary number plates for the cars either both Kosova and Serbia are right or they are wrong. Thus they will wither keep number plates of both countries or take them away,” Kurti said.
The Kosovar prime minister added he had a phone call with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell the night before to talk on the issue.
Thousands of people were killed and more than 1 million were left homeless after a 1998-1999 bloody crackdown by Serbian troops against Kosovo Albanian separatists. The war ended only after NATO intervened. Kosovo then declared independence in 2008. It has been recognized by the U.S. and other Western nations, but not by Serbia and its allies Russia and China.
Thousands of NATO-led peacekeepers, including U.S. troops, are still deployed in Kosovo, trying to stave off lingering ethnic tensions between majority Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo Serbs.
The EU and U.S. urged Kosovo and Serbia to “immediately, without any delay” exercise restraint and refrain from unilateral actions.
Serbia’s populist president, Aleksandar Vucic, described Kosovo’s car plates decision as a “criminal action” after a meeting Tuesday of the top Serbian state security body on the crisis insisting that Kosovo special police withdraw from the Serb-dominated north.
“We consider as inappropriate any statements equaling the blame of Belgrade and Pristina,” Vucic said referring to the criticism of the EU and U.S. statements urging both sides to ease the tensions. “The only solution is the withdrawal of all troops, then we can go to Brussels and discuss everything and possibly reach an agreement.”
Llazar Semini reported from Tirana, Albania, Jovana Gec from Belgrade, Serbia.