March 27, 2018 / 2:39 PM / 3 months ago

Kosovo Serbs quit ruling coalition over detention of Serbia official

PRISTINA/BELGRADE (Reuters) - The party representing Kosovo’s Serb minority withdrew from the government coalition on Tuesday in protest at what it called “attacks on the people and representatives of Serbia” by the authorities in the ethnic Albanian majority country.

People walk past a banner in front of Serbian parliament building in central Belgrade, Serbia, March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

A day earlier, police fired tear gas at nationalist Serb protesters and briefly detained a Serbian official in the northern town of Mitrovica, which lies in a volatile, mainly minority Serb pocket of Kosovo.

The Serb minority party, Serb List, held three ministerial positions, including that of deputy prime minister. All four resigned on Tuesday, prompting Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj to ask them to reconsider.

“After yesterday’s attack against people and representatives of Serbia, we cannot remain silent and we cannot be a decoration,” said Goran Rakic, leader of the Serb List party.

On Monday Kosovo police in Mitrovica used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse protesters outside a meeting on improving relations between Serbia and Kosovo, its former province that went to war against repressive Serbian rule in the late 1990s.

Police also briefly detained Marko Djuric, the head of the Serbian government’s office for Kosovo. Djuric is banned from entering Kosovo over nationalist remarks Pristina regarded as inflammatory. He was later released at the border and crossed back into Serbia.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini flew to Belgrade on Tuesday evening for talks on the crisis.

“What happened yesterday must not happen again. The European Union expects calm, wisdom, restraint and leadership to prevail,” Mogherini said in a statement after meeting Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

Mogherini and Vucic “agreed to find new ways to continue working and resolving peacefully issues between Belgrade and Pristina,” the statement said.

The U.S. State Department strongly condemned the events in Mitrovica, saying in a statement they “unnecessarily heighten tensions and threaten regional stability.”

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert urged both sides to “avoid further escalation” and called on Serbia and Kosovo to “focus on normalizing relations” through the EU-led dialogue.

PM SAYS GOVERNMENT WON’T COLLAPSE

If Serb List’s 10 deputies also stop supporting Haradinaj’s government, it would lose its parliamentary majority, though he ruled out snap elections.

“I hope the Serb List will reconsider (their decision) again because unilateral decisions to leave the government are not a solution,” Haradinaj told reporters.

He denied the government was in danger of collapse but declined to say whether he would seek support from other parties. He also called on the Kosovo Serbs to return to dialogue.

Nearly half of Kosovo’s 120,000 ethnic Serbs live in the north of the country and maintain strong economic, cultural and political links with Belgrade. Albanians make up more than 90 percent of Kosovo’s population of 1.8 million.

Kosovo police said nationalist Serb protesters blocked roads with trucks and other heavy vehicles in Mitrovica on Tuesday.

When he announced Serb List’s withdrawal from the government, Rakic said Kosovo Serbs would go ahead, even without Pristina’s consent, with forming a union of those municipalities where Serbs are in the majority, as agreed in an EU-sponsored dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina in 2013.

The agreement, which was designed to give Kosovo Serbs greater autonomy, was never implemented.

Kosovo won independence from Serbia after NATO bombed Serbian security forces to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians from the region in a counter-insurgency campaign.

Although recognised by 116 nations, Kosovo is not a United Nations member because of objections from Serbia, some EU states, Russia and China.

But Belgrade is under pressure to normalise relations with Kosovo in order to help it progress towards EU accession. Both parties have committed to an EU-sponsored dialogue but little progress has been made.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday condemned the incident in Mitrovica, saying it was “aimed at intimidating Kosovan Serbs”.

Reporting by Ivana Sekularac in BELGRADE and Fatos Bytyci in PRISTINA,; Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk in MOSCOW; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Gareth Jones and Diane Craft

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