Serbia and Kosovo urged to reduce tensions after violence


EU FOREIGN policy chief Cathy Ashton has called on Serbia and Kosovo to defuse tensions after two days of violence in the Serb-dominated part of Kosovo.

As Serbian police and Nato troops reinforced checkpoints on both sides of the Kosovan border, Ms Ashton said it was the responsibility of Belgrade and Pristina to restore calm and security. The border was reported to be calm yesterday after an outbreak of violence on Wednesday.

One ethnic Albanian policeman was killed and Serb hardliners set a border crossing on fire after Pristina sent special forces to the border to police a new ban on imports from Serbia. Pristina has described the ban as a reciprocal measure for a Serbian ban on imports from Kosovo in place for more than two years.

The tension has potential to disrupt Serbia’s application to join the EU, which received a boost with the detention of war crimes suspects Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic. Stable ties with Kosovo are a prerequisite for its membership of the union.

Antagonism between Belgrade and Pristina remains undimmed since Serbia was expelled from Kosovo by Nato forces in 1999 after an 11-week bombing campaign. Kosovo has a 90 per cent Albanian majority, but its minority Serbian population still consider Belgrade to be their capital.

Serbia refuses to recognise Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence. Negotiators from both sides have been involved in face-to-face talks since March.

A worsening dispute over customs arrangements has frustrated this effort, however, leading to the cancellation of planned talks last week. Ms Ashton is now trying to coax the sides back into talks.

While Kosovo’s special police units retreated from the border posts, prime minister Hashim Thaci has said he would be sending them back.

He has blamed Belgrade for orchestrating the violence, but Serbia’s president Boris Tadic has attributed the attacks to hardline Serb nationalists opposed to his effort to forge peace with the country’s former province. Mr Tadic has been under sustained pressure from Serb opposition parties not to dilute his resistance to Kosovo’s independence.

“I have spoken to both president Tadic and prime minister Thaci to convey my concern and underline their responsibilities. It is now critical for both sides to return to dialogue, and to resolve the underlying issues without delay,” Ms Ashton said.

“Violence will never be tolerated, and unilateral actions are not the way forward.”

Serbs consider Kosovo to be the cradle of their culture and identity, but had latterly made up only 10 per cent of the population in the landlocked territory.

Nato’s intervention followed a civil war in which about 10,000 people were killed, mostly ethnic Albanians. More than 2,000 Serbs died.