BELGRADE – Serbs on Tuesday erected more roadblocks in northern Kosovo and defied international demands to remove those placed earlier, a day after Serbia put its troops near the border on a high level of combat readiness.
The new barriers, made of heavily loaded trucks, were put up overnight in Mitrovica, a northern Kosovo town divided between Kosovo Serbs and ethnic Albanians, who represent the majority in Kosovo as a whole.
It was the first time since the recent crisis started that Serbs have blocked streets in one of the main towns. Until now, barricades had been set on roads leading to the Kosovo-Serbia border.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has said he ordered the army's highest state of alert to “protect our people (in Kosovo) and preserve Serbia.”
He claimed that Pristina is preparing to “attack” Kosovo Serbs in the north of the country and remove by force several of the roadblocks that Serbs started putting up 18 days ago to protest the arrest of a former Kosovo Serb police officer.
On Tuesday, Vucic addressed reporters together with Serbian Patriarch Porfirije, who was barred by Kosovo authorities on Monday from entering Kosovo and visiting a medieval Serb church there before Serbian Orthodox Christmas, which is celebrated on Jan. 7.
In his usual manner, Vucic blasted the West and Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian authorities of plotting together to “trigger unrest and kill the Serbs” who are manning the barricades.
“Their aim is to expel Serbia out of Kosovo ... with the help of their agents in Belgrade,” he said, apparently referring to the rare opposition and independent media, which are critical of his handling of the Kosovo crisis and his increasingly autocratic policies.
Nevertheless, he said that he is currently negotiating with European Union and U.S. mediators “on preserving peace and finding a compromise solution” for the current crisis.
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic on Tuesday refused to comment on claims that Serbia had sent into Kosovo a number of armed men who are probably manning the barricades.
“I will not discuss that with you,” she said when asked by a reporter if she knows whether “Serbia's armed forces” were currently present in Kosovo.
Kosovo officials have accused Vucic of using Serbia's state media to stir up trouble and trigger incidents that could act as a pretext for an armed intervention in the former Serbian province.
Petar Petkovic, a Serbian government official in charge of contacts with Kosovo Serbs, told Serbian state television RTS that the combat readiness of Serb troops was introduced because Kosovo had done the same thing. Kosovo officials have denied that the country has raised its security alert levels.
Petkovic claimed that heavily armed Kosovo units want to attack Kosovo Serbs, including "women, the elderly, children, men. Our people who at the barricades are just defending the right to live."
Kosovo has asked NATO-led peacekeepers stationed there to remove the barriers and hinted that Pristina's forces will do it if the KFOR force doesn’t react. About 4,000 NATO-led peacekeepers have been stationed in Kosovo since the 1999 war, which ended with Belgrade losing control over the territory.
Any Serbian armed intervention in Kosovo would likely result in a clash with NATO forces and would mean a major escalation of tensions in the Balkans, which are still reeling from the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Tensions between Kosovo, which declared independence after a war in 2008, and Serbia have reached their peak over the past month. Western attempts to reach a negotiated settlement have failed, with Serbia refusing to recognize Kosovo’s statehood.
KFOR and the EU have both asked Pristina and Belgrade to show restraint and avoid provocations.
Kosovo remains a potential flashpoint in the Balkans years after the 1998-99 Kosovo war that ended with a NATO intervention that pushed Serbian troops out of the former Serbian province.
Dusan Stojanovic reported from Belgrade, Serbia.