tensions between Kosovo and Serbia erupt; NATO-led KFOR monitors border protests

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Tensions erupted between Kosovo and Serbia over the weekend, raising concerns about the possibility of further unrest in the Balkans at a time when Western allies focus on the war in Ukraine.

The NATO-led international peacekeeping force in Kosovo, known as KFOR, said in a statement that it was closely monitoring the situation in Kosovo and was “ready to intervene if the stability is threatened”.

Ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo municipalities bordering Serbia blocked roads and clashed with police on the eve of the implementation of a law requiring them to replace their license plates with Kosovo ones .

The new rules were due to come into force on Monday and would have required holders of Serbian identity cards and passports to obtain an additional document to enter Kosovo, as is already the case for Kosovars entering Serbia.

Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top diplomat, welcomed Kosovo’s decision to postpone the measures until September 1 and called to all roadblocks to be removed immediately. In a report posted on TwitterEU Special Envoy Miroslav Lajcak expressed his gratitude to US Ambassador to Kosovo Jeffrey M. Hovenier “for his strong support”.

No one was injured in Sunday’s protests, Kosovo police say said, even as gunshots were heard in a number of locations, some of them directed at police units. Protesters parked trucks and other heavy machinery on roads leading to two border crossings.

In a statement Published on Sunday, Kosovo announced the month-long delay in implementing the new measures and condemned “the obstruction of roads in northern Kosovo and the firing of weapons by armed people there”. The statement said the “acts of aggression” were instigated and planned by authorities in the Serbian capital of Belgrade.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has fueled tensions in the region. Analysts say that Russia’s nationalist and revisionist worldview has found a receptive audience in the regionin particular President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia, Bosnian Serb political leader Milorad Dodik and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Serbia, a traditional Russian ally, has rejected EU and US calls to join sanctions against Moscow. Russia — like China — still does not recognize Kosovo’s independence and decried the NATO war against his ally. The Western military alliance launched a bombing campaign in 1999 that hit targets in what was then Serbia and Montenegro combined in an effort to halt Serbia’s assault on Kosovo Albanians fighting for ‘autonomy.

Analysis: Russia’s war in Ukraine finds echoes in the Balkans

Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, on Sunday accused Kosovo of using new laws on licensing and identity documents as a step towards evicting the Serb population.

“We call on Pristina and the United States and the European Union that support it to stop provocations and respect the rights of Serbs in Kosovo,” she said, according to the Russian news agency. Cupcalling the requirements “discriminatory”.

“If they dare to persecute, mistreat and kill Serbs, Serbia will win,” Vucic told a press conference on Sunday. Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti accused Vucic of inciting violence.

Chico Harlan in Rome and Ishaan Tharoor contributed to this report.

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