EU deplores Kosovo attack on Serbia borders

Kosovo Serbia city.jpg

The European Union yesterday (26 July) deplored "unilateral action" by Pristina to assert control over borders in the northern, Serb-populated part of Kosovo, during which one officer was killed. BETA, EURACTIV's partner in Serbia, contributed to this article.

A Kosovo police officer died yesterday (26 July) after being seriously wounded during a botched attempt by ethnic Albanian Kosovo government forces to take control of two border posts in an ethnic Serb area, police said. Another officer was wounded by a grenade blast but was not in a life-threatening condition.

The violence occurred when Kosovo police tried overnight to seize border posts in the Serb-controlled northern area of Mitrovica (see 'Background') to end rampant smuggling and extend the government's rule to the north. The authorities do not provide services or collect taxes there.

Kosovo's Rosa special police seized the Brnjak crossing, in a Serb-dominated area of Kosovo, on the night of 25-26 July. This prompted Serbian forces to block the road leading up to the checkpoint.

The police unit then withdrew again at around 13:00, when an agreement between the two sides seemed close.

After the incident, NATO-led KFOR forces moved in and took charge of the Brnjak checkpoint.

The raid by special police, backed by armoured vehicles, was launched on the orders of Prime Minister Hashim Thaci after his government banned all Serb products and Serbia refused to accept Kosovo's customs stamps, needed for cross-border trade.

The operation was "not helpful" and was "not in consultation" with EU-led law enforcement mission in Kosovo EULEX, said Maja Kociajancic, spokesperson for EU High Representative Catherina Ashton.

Rejecting rumours

Kociajancic insisted that despite rumours the USA was backing Pristina in its attempts to impose its authority in northern Kosovo, the Western community had in no way approved the unilateral action by Kosovo forces. She said that there was an urgent need to reestablish the status quo.

Ashton issued a written statement late on Tuesday, saying that she had spoken to both Serbian President Boris Tadic and Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi urging them to calm tensions.

She also stressed that efforts should focus on resolving problems in EU-facilitated dialogue, which started in March and led to the signing of the first technical agreement three weeks ago.

Serbia's chief negotiator in those talks, Borislav Stefanovic, announced yesterday that he had arranged the withdrawal of Kosovo special police to Pristina by the morning of 27 July and the removal of all road blocks in northern Kosovo during a meeting with KFOR commander Erhard Bueler, the BETA agency announced.

Stefanovic said that another part of the arrangement was the return of ethnic Serb Kosovo police to the Jarinje and Brnjak checkpoints on the administrative line that separates Kosovo from Serbia proper, where they had been deployed before Kosovar special police tried to take the checkpoint.

Embargo 'unhelpful'

The border clash was the culmination of tensions which had been mounting over the last week. Trucks carrying goods from Serbia into Kosovo have been stuck for five days in no man's land at the Merdare crossing, which separates Serbia proper from Kosovo.

The trucks were denied entry to Kosovo after Pristina unilaterally declared a ban on Serbian imports, effective from 20 July. The situation is also preventing travellers from crossing the border.

Serbian officials have strongly attacked the blockade, calling it yet another violation of the EU-backed Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), of which both Serbia and Kosovo are singatories.

From the outset, the EU deplored the Kosovo-imposed embargo, stressing that unilateral action would not solve problems.

Kosovo seceded from Serbia in 2008, nine years after the end of a 1998-1999 war between Belgrade's security forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas. In the following years, Kosovo was an international protectorate patrolled by NATO peacekeepers. 

After Kosovo declared independence on 17 February 2008, the two million-strong republic, 90% of whose population is ethnic Albanian, established many of the trappings of statehood, including a new constitution, army, national anthem, flag, passports, identity cards and an intelligence agency. 

However, the Serbian-populated northern part of Kosovo (the area of Mitrovica) remains largely outside the control of Pristina.

Most EU countries, except Spain, Greece, Romania, Cyprus and Slovakia, have recognised the independence of Kosovo. Of all UN members, 76 have recognised Kosovo so far.

In December 2008 the EU deployed a rule of law mission, dubbed 'EULEX Kosovo', with the intention of taking over post-crisis management on the territory, which lies on the European continent. The aim of the operation is to assist and support the Kosovo authorities with the rule of law, specifically regarding the police, the judiciary and customs. 

The EULEX mission is the largest EU civilian mission ever launched. The 3,000-member operation has the power to take on cases that the local judiciary and police are unable to handle.

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