Kosovo police in tense standoff with local Serbs

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 25, 2011 8:38 PM
Kosovo police in tense standoff with local Serbs

MITROVICA, Kosovo (Reuters) - Kosovo sent special police forces to its Serbian-populated north late on Monday to enforce a ban on imports from Serbia, but local Serbs resisted the move as ethnic tensions rose sharply.

Police said they had taken control of one of two border crossings in the area, but the local Serbs blocked the road to prevent them from reaching the other.

The crossings, known as Gates 1 and 31, were attacked and set on fire by the Serbs when Kosovo, which has a 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority, declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Kosovo has not controlled them since that time.

"Police are there but they cannot move from there because Serbs have blocked the roads. I think conflict is at the door," said Oliver Ivanovic, Serbia's State Secretary for Kosovo.

Last week Kosovo banned all imports from Serbia and introduced a 10 percent tax on goods from Bosnia. Both countries have blocked Kosovo's exports since its independence declaration, which has been recognized by 76 countries including the United States and most of the European Union.

Around 60,000 Kosovo Serbs live in the north. They do not recognize Kosovo's statehood and still see Belgrade as their capital.

"This is not an action against the local people," Kosovo Deputy Prime Minister Hajredin Kuci said of the police deployment.

He said it was needed to secure the "rule of law, to control our border crossings and also to have only one economic system, which has not worked in that part of the country for many years."

In an announcement apparently related to the operation, Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci sacked the country's police commander, his office said in a statement. It gave no details.

Serbia lost Kosovo, a landlocked state of 1.7 million people which Serbs regard as the cradle of their nation, in 1999 when NATO waged a bombing campaign to halt killings of ethnic Albanians in a counter-insurgency war.

(Reporting by Branislav Krstic and Fatos Bytyci; editing by Mark Trevelyan)