ZUPCE, Kosovo (Reuters) - Hundreds of Kosovo Serbs prevented NATO troops in Kosovo (KFOR) from removing roadblocks on roads to two contested border crossings between the country’s volatile north and Serbia early Saturday, witnesses said.
Tensions have mounted in the north as Kosovo’s government tries to stamp its authority over this largely lawless area, home to 60,000 ethnic Serbs, who want to stop Kosovo deploying its own police and customs at the Serbian border.
Mostly ethnic-Albanian Kosovo is Serbia’s former southern province and declared independence in 2008 after a 1998-99 war and years under United Nations rule. The country is still patrolled by KFOR and EU law and justice mission, EULEX.
At a roadblock in the village of Zupce, about 80 km (40 miles) north of Kosovo’s capital Pristina, Serbs sat in the road in front of armoured personnel carriers and an infantry cordon.
In the nearby village of Jagnjenica, Serbs parked trucks across the road to the Brnjak crossing, reinforcing a barricade there. KFOR troops tried and failed to get a bulldozer past metres-high earth and gravel barricades, a human shield and the trucks.
Friday, KFOR commander, German General Erhard Drews said Kosovan Serbs must secure freedom of movement for his troops and other international missions. He said more talks were planned with local Serbs for Saturday and warned NATO was running out of patience.
“I still believe that the better solution would be a peaceful one but ... there’s little hope we will come to the solution in time,” he told reporters. “Time is running out.”
Earlier this week KFOR used tear gas to disperse Serbs at a barricade along a network of roads leading to the Brnjak border post. Eight peacekeepers and about two dozen civilians were slightly injured in the scuffles.
Hardline Serb leaders from northern Kosovo defied NATO calls to remove roadblocks and called for Belgrade to send in Serbian troops and police.
In Belgrade, President Boris Tadic asked NATO to refrain from violence and Kosovo Serbs to secure freedom of movement for peacekeepers.
Serbia holds parliamentary elections in 2012 and Kosovo, seen by Serbs as their historic heartland, will be a hot issue.
Serbia still effectively runs Serb-dominated northern Kosovo, but is under pressure to resolve the impasse and mend ties with Pristina if it wants the European Commission to approve its candidacy for joining EU.
More than 80 countries, including the United States and most EU states, have recognized Kosovo as a sovereign country.
Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci in Pristina; Writing by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Louise Ireland