news 08 Dec 16

Kosovo Bans Building of Serb Wall in Mitrovica

The building of a concrete wall by the Serb authorities near their side of the bridge that ethnically divides the Kosovo town of Mitrovica was ordered to stop after strong criticism by Kosovo Albanian officials.

Die Morina
The bridge over the Ibar river in Mitrovica. Photo: BIRN

Kosovo’s Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning on Thursday ordered a halt to the building of the two-metre-high wall on the Serb north side of the Ibar river in Mitrovica.

“The ministry decided to stop the construction of the wall because it is contrary to the laws of Kosovo,” Bedri Halimi, the chief inspector at the ministry, told BIRN.

Last weekend, local Serb authorities in north Mitrovica started erecting a concrete wall on the banks of the Ibar River, just next to the bridge that ethnically divides the town’s Serb-dominated north and largely Albanian-populated south. It does not block traffic crossing the bridge.

The building of the wall has angered Kosovo Albanian officials, although Serb officials in Mitrovica insist the construction is purely practical and implies no aggression.

Kosovo’s Minister for Dialogue Edita Tahiri insisted on Wednesday that the construction work must be stopped and the wall knocked down because it was illegal.

“The time of walls has passed. It is a time of free movement and the removal of the [Serb-built] barricade from the [Ibar River] bridge [in 2014] ended the infamous era of barricades,” she said.

Kosovo Prime Minister Isa Mustafa said on Thursday however that the law must decide whether the wall is illegal or not.

“The wall will be dealt with under the law. We will not show [our] muscles, because the law shows [its] muscles,” Mustafa said.

The building of barriers on or near the Ibar River bridge is a highly sensitive issue in the ethnically-divided town.

For several years, a large barricade made of stone and sand that was manned by local Serbs - known as ‘bridge watchers’ - prevented the free flow of vehicles over the bridge.

It was removed in June 2014, and now the bridge is expected to be open to both pedestrians and vehicles by January 20, 2017 as a result of an agreement in August between Kosovo and Serbia.

When the barricade was taken down in June 2014, it was immediately replaced with a so-called Peace Park, made largely of conifers planted in concrete pots.

This park was removed in August 2015, when the renovation of the bridge started as a sign that normal relations between the city’s Serb and Albanian residents could be restored.

EU foreign affairs spokesperson Maja Kocjancic said Brussels was reviewing reports about the building of the new wall because the bridge renovation project is being funded by the EU, Pristina-based newspaper Gazeta Express reported on Thursday.

Tahiri said the new wall could undermine the bridge agreement and raise tensions.

The Serb mayor of North Mitrovica, Goran Rakic, insisted however that the edifice was a “supporting wall” for the ongoing redevelopment project.

“We will not tear down the wall which is under construction near the north side of bridge over the Ibar and minister Tahiri will not decide what will and what will not be built in that part of the city,” Rakic told Serbian news agency Tanjug.

He claimed that EU representatives, as well as Pristina officials, have been well informed about the construction work. He said that the wall will ensure the security of the riverside promenade and act as a sound baffler.

Meanwhile Ramush Haradinaj, the leader of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo opposition party, also criticised officials in Pristina.

“First of all, I think that the wall as a wall is wrong, but Pristina is also making many wrong moves regarding the north,” Haradinaj said on Thursday.

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