In a surprising use of force, NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo early today used tear gas and pepper spray against local Serbs while dismantling a series of barricades erected in July by local hardliners.
The raid came after local Serbs twice refused a NATO ultimatum to take down the 16 mud-and-log barriers that required EU police to escort Kosovo customs officers to the border via helicopters. The barriers became a symbol of defiance against Kosovo independence and the borders decided by a UN resolution. Self-styled Kosovo Serb officials announced yesterday they would not remove the barricades and sought instead to define terms to the peacekeeping and EU police forces.
Shortly after the NATO raid, a press release by the European police force in Kosovo together with KFOR, the designation of the 5,500 troop NATO mission there, described it in flat language as “a joint operation to reestablish freedom of movement in northern Kosovo. Barricades were removed and vehicle check points and roadblocks set up. … The overall aim is to improve the rule of law situation in this part of Kosovo.”
Angry local Serbs mobbed the operation, leading to tear gas injuries for 22 Serbs and creating tension.
KFOR official Uve Novicki told Radio Free Europe in Pristina, “I can say our operation went successfully so far. We have a full control in the valley across the Ibar River and roads that were used for smuggling.”
Authorities in Pristina applauded the KFOR action. In Belgrade the Tadic government called for restraint and calm.
Until 1999 Kosovo was part of Serbia and is considered a mythic heartland of Serb identity, even though Kosovo is now more than 90 percent Albanian and declared independence in 2008, backed by the US and EU.
In recent years Serbia has somewhat downplayed the issue of Kosovo as it seeks EU candidacy. In late May, the Tadic government in Belgrade turned over Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic, accused of genocide, to the Yugoslav tribunal at The Hague.
Removal by force
Yesterday a Western official in Kosovo told the Monitor that KFOR was considering removing the barricades by force, but said that “time is on the side” of KFOR and “pressure is only building on Belgrade.” Serbia knows that EU members will not want to admit a state with ragged neighborly relations or that resembles a divided Cyprus.
“Time may take care of this, but we are also aware things could blow up,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, owing to diplomatic sensitivity.
Serb candidacy in the EU was accepted last week, but a formal date to begin talks was delayed pending better relations between Serbia and Albanian-majority Kosovo. “We recommend that accession negotiations be opened as soon as Serbia achieves further progress in the one key priority … the negotiations with Kosovo,” said EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fule last week.
The standoff started over a long-running trade dispute. Currently, Serb goods come into Kosovo, but Kosovo cannot send goods into or through Serbia. The situation is out of kilter with UN Resolution 1244, has dragged on for years, and Kosovars, irritated at a lack of resolution, attempted to “take” border posts in the Serb-controlled north in late July.