NATO-led peacekeepers, supported by helicopters, on Monday oversaw the removal of roadblocks protesters had set up in Kosovo, where political tensions have flared for more than two decades after NATO airstrikes drove Serbian forces out.
“Roads are now clear for traffic and both border crossings are now open for people and goods to cross,” the police said in a statement.
The removal of the barricades came after the government of Kosovo delayed a decision that would have required ethnic Serbs, who make up the majority in the north, to apply for documents and license plates issued by Kosovo’s institutions.
The situation revived differences with Serbia and Russianone of which recognize Western-linked Kosovo as an independent state or block its attempts to join United Nations. Kosovo, recognized as a state by more than 100 countries, seeks to join NATO.
The government’s decision to postpone followed consultations with US and EU ambassadors.
“Violence is unacceptable. Those who use violence will be punished by the rule of law with the force of law,” Prime Minister Albin Kurti told reporters on Monday. According to him, a total of nine roadblocks were installed.
Fourteen years after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, some 50,000 ethnic Serbs in the north still use license plates and documents issued by the Serbian authorities, refusing to recognize the Kosovo government.
Ethnic Serbs parked heavy equipment, including trucks filled with gravel, on roads near the border with Serbia on Sunday to protest a new policy the government agreed to delay until September 1.
After this date, local Serbs will have 60 days to switch to Kosovo license plates and accept documents issued at the border to Serbian citizens, including those living in Kosovo without local documents.
“Now, thank God, we managed to avoid some escalation overnight, but this situation dragged on for only 1 month,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday.
Tensions with Serbia remain high, and the fragile peace in Kosovo is maintained by NATO’s KFOR mission, which has 3,770 troops on the ground. On Sunday, the mission issued a statement saying it was ready to intervene in accordance with its mandate if stability was threatened.
On Sunday, Italian peacekeepers were visible in and around the northern city of Mitrovica.
A Reuters reporter saw KFOR helicopters flying over the northern part of Kosovo, which borders Serbia. The peacekeepers were also present during the dismantling of checkpoints, standing on the side of the road and talking with residents.
Earlier on Monday, the government began issuing additional documents to Serbian citizens at Merdare, the largest border crossing between Serbia and Kosovo. The Kosovo government has said it will stop issuing documents as soon as the roadblocks are removed.
A year ago, after local Serbs in another row blocked the same roads over license plates, the Kosovo government deployed a special police force and Belgrade sent fighter jets close to the border.
Serbia and Kosovo committed in 2013 to a dialogue sponsored by European Union try to resolve outstanding issues, but little progress has been made.