BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic said late Wednesday that Serbs will start removing their barricades in Kosovo on Thursday in a move that could deescalate tensions that triggered fears of new clashes in the Balkans.
The agreement was reached at a late-night crisis meeting with the leaders of Kosovo Serbs, Vucic said.
It followed the release of a former Kosovo Serb police officer, whose detention triggered a major crisis between Serbia and Kosovo that provoked international concerns. He has been ordered released from prison and placed under house arrest.
“This means that from tomorrow (Thursday), from the morning hours, the removal of barricades will begin," Vucic said after the meeting. “This is not a simple process, and can’t be done in two hours, as some imagined.”
"“Within 24 to 48 hours the barricades will be removed,” Vucic said. “But the distrust is not removed.”
The Dec. 10 arrest of the former officer, Dejan Pantic, led to protests by Kosovo Serbs who erected multiple roadblocks in the north of the country.
Pantic was detained for “terrorism” after allegedly assaulting a Kosovo police officer during an earlier protest.
Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti, criticized the court’s decision to release Pantic on house arrest.
“I’m curious to know who is the prosecutor that makes a request and judge who approves a decision to place someone on house arrest when they have a standing terrorism charge,” Kurti said at a news conference.
Pantic's arrest prompted weeks of tense standoffs, punctuated by gunfire and explosions near patrols of the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force and journalists. No one was severely injured.
Ultimately, Serbia raised combat readiness of its troops on the border with Kosovo, demanding an end to “attacks” against Kosovo Serbs.
Kosovo has asked NATO-led peacekeepers stationed there to remove the barriers and hinted that Pristina’s forces would do it if the peacekeeping force did not react. About 4,000 NATO-led peacekeepers have been stationed in Kosovo since a 1998-99 separatist war ended with Serbia losing control over what was then one of its provinces.
Late Tuesday, Serbs blocked one of the main roads from Serbia to Kosovo, at the border crossing of Merdare, prompting Kosovo’s authorities to call on thousands of expats heading to Kosovo for the holidays from European countries to avoid that crossing and use others.
“The erection of the barricades in the roads is an unlawful and unacceptable act that will not be tolerated,” Kurti said. “We have given KFOR the time and space needed to act, but of course, this time is quickly running out,” he warned.
The United States and the European Union expressed concern at the situation in a joint statement Wednesday.
“We call on everyone to exercise maximum restraint, to take immediate action to unconditionally de-escalate the situation, and to refrain from provocations, threats, or intimidation,” the statement released by the State Department and the EU said.
It added that both parties were working with Serbia's Vucic and Kosovo's Kurti “to find a political solution ... and agree on the way forward.”
The statement welcomed what it said were assurances from Kosovo's leaders that there exist no lists of Kosovo Serbs to be arrested or prosecuted for peaceful protests or erecting barricades.
“At the same time, rule of law must be respected, and any form of violence is unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” it stressed.
The German government said it is “very concerned” about the tensions in northern Kosovo.
“The illegal barricades erected by Kosovo Serbs must be taken down as quickly as possible, and yesterday’s blockade of the Merdare border crossing on the Serbian side exacerbates the situation further,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Christofer Burger said in Berlin.
France’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday warned any travelers near the Serbia-Kosovo border to exercise “the greatest vigilance” and avoid gatherings as long as the tensions last.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Western attempts to mediate a negotiated settlement to normalize relations between the two have failed, with Serbia refusing to recognize Kosovo’s statehood.