NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg told Kosovo and Serbia to “calm down” on Friday (3 February), following a string of disputes that have sent bilateral tensions rising to their highest level in years.
On a visit to Kosovo, the NATO secretary general urged all parties to “show restraint and participate in a constructive way” in EU-brokered talks between the two sides, which were at war in the late 1990s.
“My main message to everyone is to calm down, not use the rhetoric that can increase tensions,” he told reporters.
“It is vital that the agreements reached in this dialogue are implemented.”
Serbia does not recognise the sovereignty of its former province Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008 a decade after its ethnic Albanian insurgents fought Serbian forces under late strongman Slobodan Milošević.
The troops withdrew from the territory following an 11-week bombing campaign by NATO against Serbia.
In 2011, Kosovo and Serbia began the EU-led talks to improve their damaged ties but relations deteriorated again in recent weeks.
Last month Belgrade sent a train towards Kosovo, painted in the Serbian national colours and covered with the statement “Kosovo is Serbia” in multiple languages.
The move was lambasted as “deliberate provocation” by Kosovar President Hashim Thaçi, who suggested it was part of a plan to annex the Serb-populated north of his country.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić eventually halted the train before it crossed the border, saying he took the decision to “avoid a conflict and save lives” based on fears the train would be attacked.
Kosovo was also angered by the arrest in France last month of its former prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj, on suspicion of war crimes, under an international arrest warrant issued by Serbia.
Leaders of the two Balkan countries have since met in Brussels and agreed to try and ease tensions.
Ethnic Serbs in the Kosovo town of Mitrovica on Sunday (5 February) tore down a controversial wall critics blamed for reinforcing ethnic divisions in an already tense region.
The mayor of the city’s Serb-dominated northern sector, Goran Rakić, argued the barrier built last month would protect a new pedestrian zone near the bridge crossing the Ibar river to the southern zone, where most of the town’s ethnic Albanian population live.
But the two-metre-high concrete wall, stretching some 100 metres, quickly took on a larger political dimension, with Kosovar authorities in Pristina calling for its dismantling.
On Sunday, a crew of workers operating two bulldozers took three hours to demolish the barrier, an AFP journalist reported.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini hailed the move as “constructive”, and said leaders on both sides were “demonstrating courage and vision by taking down walls and focusing on building bridges”.
The move was the first evidence of a thaw between Kosovo and its northern neighbour Serbia after weeks of strained relations, and came after EU-sponsored talks between leaders of both sides in Brussels last month.