JARINJE, Kosovo (Reuters) - NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo (KFOR) destroyed a Serb barricade at a contested northern border crossing with Serbia on Friday, but the local Serbs soon set up another one a little further away.
The incident underlined the difficulty of normalising the border area, a key sticking point in Serbia’s uneasy relationship with the majority ethnic Albanian province which declared independence in 2008 after NATO intervened in a war.
More than a dozen people were injured in clashes which broke out this week after peacekeepers tried to dismantle barricades set up by ethnic Serbs to prevent the Kosovo government extending its rule into the predominantly Serb border area.
On Friday, several dozen U.S. KFOR troops destroyed a gravel barricade, forcing local Serbs to pull back and extending the perimeter of a NATO base around the Jarinje border crossing to almost 400 meters (yards). There were no arrests or injuries.
Several helicopters were seen taking off and landing at NATO positions in Jarinje, about 100 km (60 miles) north of Kosovo’s capital Pristina, and an unmanned drone reconnoitered overhead.
Meanwhile Serbs parked two heavy trucks across a nearby bridge several hundred metres (yards) from NATO positions and effectively continued their blockade of the road linking Kosovo and Serbia.
Branko Ninic, mayor of the nearby town of Leposavic said NATO troops had undertaken a hostile action and that he had told a KFOR commander there not to use force against civilians.
“They (KFOR) blatantly violated the mandate approved by the U.N,,” Ninic told Reuters.
Sixteen Kosovo Serbs and four peacekeepers were injured in Jarinje in Tuesday’s confrontation.
Kosovo’s government in Pristina is trying to extend its reach into the largely lawless north, home to 60,000 Kosovo Serbs who still pledge allegiance to Belgrade.
Kosovo, which became independent after a bitter 1998-99 war and years under United Nations rule, is recognised by more than 80 countries, including the United States and most of the European Union, but not by Serbia or its ally Russia.
On September 16, Pristina, backed by KFOR and EU police and judiciary mission (EULEX), sent police and customs officials to Brnjak and Jarinje, the two key border crossings in the north, previously staffed mostly by ethnic Serbs. In response, Kosovo Serbs blocked roads leading to the border.
Kosovo’s Interior Minister Bajram Rexepi said on Friday Pristina would coordinate with KFOR and EULEX to remove Serb-held roadblocks which he said interfered in people’s lives.
Clashes in Jarinje this week prompted Belgrade to cancel EU-mediated talks with Pristina in Brussels aimed at improving cooperation in areas such as the flow of goods and property rights.
Serbia wants to join the European Union and will likely be granted candidate status by end-October, but it must mend ties with Kosovo to secure a date for accession talks.
Serbia also faces a parliamentary election, expected in April 2012, and Kosovo will be high on the campaign agenda.
Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; editing by Philippa Fletcher