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News 02 Apr 12

Serbia Releases Two Kosovo Policemen

Two Kosovo policemen arrested on Serbian territory on Saturday have been released and handed over on Monday to the EU Mission to Kosovo.

Fatmir Aliu BIRN Pristina

The EU Mission to Kosovo said that the two detained Kosovo Police officers, have been freed after intensive negotiations with the authorities in Belgrade, and are now back to Kosovo.

“Their release was largely facilitated by EULEX. We send a car to pick them up in Prokuplje and bring them to Merdare, where they crossed at lunch time,” Nick Hawton the spokesperson of the mission told BIRN on Monday.

According to EULEX, after being released from the detention in Prokuplje, where they spent 48 hours, the two Kosovo policemen “appeared to be in good health.”

Shukri Binaku and Sami Beqiri, two border policemen, according to the Serb Ministry of Interior, were apprehended after they were found inside the territory of Serbia.

The authorities in Pristina, meanwhile, maintained that the policemen were kidnapped inside the territory of Kosovo.

Belgrade said it nabbed the two men in Kosovo Police uniforms and armed with automatic weapons, GPRS and surveillance equipment in the area of Merdare, which borders both countries.

Binaku and Beqiri and were detained for breaching Serbia's constitutional order.

Dacic said the EU and UN missions to Kosovo, EULEX and UNMIK, needed to find out what the two armed policemen from Kosovo  “were doing inside the territory of Serbia”.

NATO's Kosovo Force, KFOR, has started investigating where the two officers were arrested.

Kosovo denied that the men crossed into Serbia. In a statement, Kosovo Police said its officers were patrolling on foot at the village of Dumnica, in the north-eastern Kosovo municipality of Podujevo, where they were abducted.

“The two members of the Kosovo Border Police at the moment they were kidnapped were patrolling inside their zone of responsibility, within the territory of the Republic of Kosovo, and did not, in any way, cross their zone of responsibility,” the statement said.

The rights organisation Human Rights Watch called on both Kosovo and Serbia to halt the series of arbitrary arrests and release all the respective detainees without further delay.

The Kosovo government meanwhile said that the arrest of the officers “seriously harms the relations between the two countries, Kosovo and Serbia”.

The government, led by Hashim Thaci, also called on the EU and US to take steps to stop such arbitrary arrests.

The incidents follow the arrest in Kosovo on February 25 of six Serbian Interior Ministry staff for allegedly putting pressure on locals in the municipality of Partes not to recognize Kosovo's institutions. They were all released on Saturday.

The incident touched off a series of reprisals, with both countries arresting each other’s officials in recent weeks, as local and parliamentary elections in Serbia approach.

On Tuesday, Kosovo Police arrested four Kosovo Serbs at the Dheu i Bardhë border crossing with Serbia. They included the Mayor of Vitina, two of his employees, and a police officer from the Ferizaj police.

The police said they found a list of Serb voters in the municipalities of Gjilan and Vitina in their possession, and another list of people working for Serbian-run parallel institutions in Kosovo.

Serbian police retaliated by arresting two Kosovo Albanians on Wednesday. Hasan Abazi, the President of the Metalworkers Union, was arrested for alleged espionage, while Adem Urseli was arrested for drug smuggling. A court in Vranje has ordered Abazi to be detained for 30 days for allegedly giving sensitive information to NATO in 1999.

Both sets of arrests have drawn criticism from non-governmental organisations, who describe them as politically motivated and based on the men's ethnic background.

Serbia announced last month that it was extending its May 6 local elections to Kosovo, which it still considers part of its territory, even though the country declared itself independent in 2008.

This move was condemned by the Kosovo government and by the international community as a violation of Kosovo's territorial integrity and sovereignty, which Belgrade does not recognize. At the time, Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said that Serbia was provoking an open conflict with Kosovo and described the move as Serbia’s renewed aggression against Kosovo.

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