PRISTINA/JARINJE, Kosovo (Reuters) - Kosovan and European Union police and customs officers were deployed at two contested border crossings with Serbia in the predominantly-Serb north of the country on Friday, an official said, amid concerns that the move could provoke ethnic violence.
Troops of NATO’s KFOR force also sealed off the two contested crossings in an attempt to pre-empt any violence. A Reuters reporter saw heavily armed German troops at the Jarinje crossing, about 100 km (60 miles) north of Pristina.
“Mixed teams are on the border. They were sent in by helicopters,” Kosovo’s Interior Minister Bajram Rexhepi told Reuters.
The Pristina government wants to reinstate its presence in the largely lawless northern area which pledges its allegiance to Belgrade, three years after Kosovo — which has an Albanian majority — declared independence from Serbia.
In July Pristina tried to install police and customs at the two crossings which had been staffed mostly by ethnic Serbs. However, armed Serbs drove them back, leaving NATO soldiers scrambling to intervene. One ethnic Albanian policeman was killed during the riots.
Belgrade, which opposes Kosovo’s independence, has warned that the takeover of the border crossings could lead to clashes but appealed on Friday for calm.
“I am hoping Kosovo Serbs will preserve wisdom and avoid almost certain provocations. Any violent response will aid the Pristina government and its intentions,” Serbian government spokesman Milivoje Mihajlovioc told Reuters.
All traffic between Kosovo’s north and Serbia has been halted and the border gate, which was torched by Serb extremists during the riots in July, was surrounded by barbed wire and bunkers made of sand bags.
The German troops also put up a sign warning that they would open fire on any trespassers. At least six armoured personnel carriers were deployed.
The EU police and justice mission, EULEX, has wanted to deploy its own police and customs officers at the two crossings to combat widespread smuggling.
Overnight, Kosovo Serbs maintained their own barricades along the road leading to Jarinje and another boundary post, the Brnjak, about 100 km (60 miles) to the northwest, to prevent movements of EULEX and NATO troops but there were no incidents.
“We want no violence, but we will defend what is ours,” said Slavoljub, a man in his mid 50s, at a barricade near Jarinje.
Also on Friday about 1,000 local Serbs peacefully rallied in the divided city of Mitrovica and maintained their own barricades on bridges across the Ibar River which divides Albanian and Serb districts.
“EULEX and KFOR have violated their mandate, Belgrade must now consider an end of cooperation with EULEX,” said Krstimir Pantic, the ethnic Serb mayor of northern Mitrovica.
On Thursday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that peacekeepers from the alliance’s 6,000-strong peacekeeping force in Kosovo would intervene to stop any violence. “KFOR troops have to act in self-defence and ... they also have to act if it is necessary to maintain a safe and secure environment,” he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has also urged Kosovo and Serbia to avoid actions that could exacerbate tensions in northern Kosovo.
Serbia cherishes Kosovo as its historic heartland and most of its medieval monasteries and churches are there. It lost control over Kosovo in 1999, when NATO bombed to halt a Serb counter-insurgency war against ethnic Albanian rebels.
Belgrade is under pressure to mend ties with Kosovo to gain EU candidate status, a step to eventual accession. But the Serbian government also has one eye on a parliamentary election due next year and Kosovo is high on its agenda.
Since 2008, the new state of around 1.7 million mostly ethnic Albanians has been recognised by more than 80 countries, including the United States and most of the EU.
Writing by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by David Stamp