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News 26 Jul 11

Kosovo Police Pull Back From Serb Border

Kosovo special police have pulled back from two border crossings in the Serb-dominated north of the country following an agreement beween Pristina and Belgrade.

Lawrence Marzouk and Zoran Kosanovic

Kosovo’s special police unit has withdrawn from border points within the Serb-held north of the country following orders from the government, a police source told Balkan Insight.

The source added that a deal had been reached between Pristina, Belgrade and KFOR.

Borislav Stefanovic, Belgrade's lead member in  negotiations with Pristina, said on Tuesday night that he had reached a deal with KFOR for Kosovo Serb police officers to return to the border crossings on Wednesday morning.

He told the 300-strong protest of local Serbs who had been blocking the road to the crossing near Leposavic to stay the night at the site. The crowd allowed vehicles to pass from 7pm.

He warned of a "difficult night ahead" but called on the protestors to stay "calm and wise."

In a press conference at 8.30pm on Tuesday, Kosovo PM Hashim Thaci made no mention of the agreement.

He said: "The action taken last night in no way should be seen as an action to prompt provocation, in fact, the purpose of the action was to establish law and order across the whole territory of the Republic of Kosovo.

"We cannot be indifferent and forever tolerate one part of our territory being a dark hole, not only for Kosovo but even for Europe too.

"We cannot tolerate forever our sovereignty being violated. We cannot allow one part of our homeland being used as a walkway for smuggled goods."

Kosovo Police, according to Interior Minister Bajram Rexhepi, remain in control of the two customs points and Kosovo Customs have been deployed there.

Rexhepi told the Pristina daily Koha Ditore at 2pm that KFOR was working alongside Kosovo Police, adding that four officers from the special unit had been injured in the operation. One is believed to have been shot in the head and is in a critical condition.

According to reports in Pristina, members of the special units came under attack from local Serbs as they pulled out in the direction of the northern town of Mitrovica.

A loud explosion was reported in a neighbourhood of north Mitrovica, which is inhabited largely by Serbs.

Kosovo Police last night unilaterally seized control of the crossings, which have been controlled by the EU rule-of-law mission, EULEX, since Kosovo’s declaration of independence, in a move which has been condemned by Serbia and the international community.

The police were sent in after EULEX failed to enforce last week’s ban on the import of Serbian goods.

Europe's top official in Pristina criticised Kosovo this morning, saying Brussels did not see the action as helpful.

EU Special Representative Fernando Gentilini spoke hours after a special police unit took control of two border crossings with Serbia.

The operation "was not helpful. It was not done in consultation with the international community and the EU does not approve it," the top EU official said. "It is essential now to calm the situation down and return to where we were. EULEX stands ready to assist the Kosovo authorities in doing this.

"Unilateral action by one side or the other cannot solve the problem," he added.

The comment was later condemned by Pristina-based think tank, the Foreign Policy Club. In a statement, the club called Gentilini’s comments "unacceptable", adding that he appeared to be advocating a “return to unlawfulness”.

EULEX has controlled the disputed points since Kosovo declared independence in 2008, when local Serbs set fire to the border crossings near the towns of Leposavic and Zubin Potok.

Both the EU mission and KFOR, the NATO force in Kosovo, said they were not involved in the police operation, despite claims to the contrary by Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci.

As the operation got underway, Thaci announced that he had sacked the country’s top police officer, Reshat Maliqi. He is believed to have been sacked because of his reticence to go ahead with the operation, an international source told Balkan Insight anonymously.

Kosovo last week banned the import of all Serbian products. Belgrade placed an embargo on Kosovo goods following the 2008 declaration of independence, breaching the terms of the Central European Free Trade Agreement, CEFTA.

When talks between Belgrade and Pristina on resolving this issue failed last week, and the next round of EU-led negotiations was postponed, Kosovo introduced the ban.

But Kosovo's Interior Minister, Bajram Rexhepi, the man who ordered the police to seize the border points, said EULEX had failed to implement the decision, allowing Serbian trucks to enter Kosovo, resulting in the shock deployment.

The deal between Belgrade and Pristina to end the dispute is believed to have been brokered by KFOR, although Bekim Collaku, senior political adviser to Kosovo's Prime Minister, told Radio Free Europe at 2pm that no such deal had been reached.

Milivoje Mihajlovic, head of the Serbian government's information bureau, said his government wished to resolve the situation in north Kosovo.

“Kosovo and Metohija is under the protectorate of the United Nations and the international community and we have to try to indicate to the point of the problem in these centres of power through diplomatic channels and thus to try to solve the problem,” Mihajlovic told reporters in Belgrade.

“On the other side, we should do everything in the field in order to avoid any incidents,” he added.

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