By Branislav Krstic
JAGNJENICA, Kosovo (Reuters) - NATO troops in Kosovo (KFOR) fired teargas to disperse hundreds of Serbs blocking a contested border crossing with Serbia on Thursday, and used armored vehicles in a bid to remove makeshift barriers.
A Reuters eyewitness saw German and Austrian troops in full riot gear moving to dismantle the roadblock near the village of Jagnjenica, just outside the town of Zubin Potok, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Pristina.
The Kosovo Serbs, who do not recognize Kosovo's 2008 independence declaration from Serbia, put up barricades on two disputed border points with Serbia in July, when Kosovo's ethnic Albanian-dominated authorities tried to take them over.
A column of about a dozen KFOR trucks and armored personnel carriers were deployed along the road to the disputed Brnjak border crossing between Kosovo and Serbia. KFOR used loudspeakers to warn protesters to disperse but they refused to comply, the eyewitness said.
In Belgrade Serb President Boris Tadic urged Kosovo Serbs to remain peaceful and NATO to refrain from the use of force.
"Local (Serb) leaders should work only in the best interest of people and not under the influence of some (Serbian) political parties," Tadic said in a statement.
"Under no means should the people (in Kosovo's north) resort to violence as that would lead to an abyss."
Tadic's remarks signaled a rift between Belgrade and Kosovo Serb hardliners and came after ethnic Serb mayors and community leaders from northern Kosovo on Wednesday defied NATO calls to remove roadblocks. They had called for Belgrade to send in Serbian troops and police.
"Their position was solidified by nationalists from Belgrade who want to undermine Serbia's efforts to normalize situation in the region and join the European Union," said a official in Belgrade who asked not to be named.
There have been previous clashes over the blocked borders between protesters and troops from KFOR, who have patrolled Kosovo since Serbian forces withdrew in 1999 and a U.N. administration took over. A European Union mission (EULEX) replaced it in 2008.
Serbia still effectively runs Serb-dominated northern Kosovo, but is under pressure to help resolve the impasse after the European Commission conditioned future EU accession talks on Belgrade's cooperation with Kosovo's government.
Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999 after a 78-day NATO bombing campaign halted a crackdown on ethnic Albanian civilians in a two-year counter-insurgency war.
More than 80 countries, including the United States and most of the EU, have recognized Kosovo as a sovereign country.
(Reporting By Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Matthew Jones)