PRISTINA/BELGRADE Kosovo accused former ruler Serbia on Wednesday of plotting to use violence to sabotage its takeover of two contested border crossings, raising the stakes in a simmering row between the two Balkan neighbours.
Kosovo wants to send police and customs officials to the two posts in a largely lawless northern territory on Friday, to stamp its authority on the region still occupied by ethnic Serbs.
Serbia earlier this week warned the move would spark violent clashes and witnesses said minority Serbs had already started erecting barricades in the northern Kosovan city of Mitrovica.
Kosovo, a country of around 1.7 million mostly ethnic Albanians, declared independence from Serbia with Western backing in 2008.
"The Kosovo government is asking Serbia to stand down from its efforts to destabilise and violate the sovereignty of Kosovo," Kosovan Prime Minister Hashim Thaci told reporters in his capital Pristina.
"Unfortunately, Serbia is very irresponsibly preparing its illegal and criminal structures to cause violence and impede the authorities, which have a duty to take control," Thaci added.
In a possible sign of international concern about the standoff, NATO said its Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was due to visit Pristina on Thursday to meet Thaci and the commander of the territory's NATO peacekeeping force, General Erhard Drews.
Kosovo tried in July to install police and customs at the two crossings on its border with Serbia, but armed Serbs drove them back, burning down one border gate and leaving soldiers of the 6,000-strong NATO force scrambling to intervene.
Thaci has staked much of his political credibility on laying down the law in the north.
Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999, when NATO bombed to halt Serb atrocities and ethnic cleansing in a counter-insurgency war under then Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
Since 2008, the new state has been recognised by more than 80 countries, including the United States and most of the EU.
But some 60,000 Serbs in the north reject any encroachment of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian-dominated institutions.
Serbia is under pressure from the EU to regulate its relationship with Pristina if it is to gain coveted EU candidate status, a step to eventual accession. But the government also has one eye on a parliamentary election due next year.
Turning up the heat, the powerful opposition Serbian Progressive Party demanded an urgent session of parliament to debate how the government should respond.
"The assumption that Serbia will do everything to secure EU candidacy, and that the time is ripe to put an end to the Kosovo issue, is wrong and dangerous," Serbian Interior Minister Ivica Dacic told reporters.
"Serbia cannot fight all problems alone, but neither can it afford to remain passive and watch on, since we could end up in a very dangerous situation."
Dacic is leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia, formerly led by Milosevic and now a minority partner in Serbia's coalition government with pro-EU Democrats.
He raised the possibility of Serbia closing its other border crossings with mainly Albanian-populated regions of Kosovo.
"In this region," he said, "a small spark is enough to ignite a big fire."
(Writing by Matt Robinson)
(This story has been corrected in paragraph 7 to show name is General Erhard Drews, not Buehler)