Tensions escalate in northern Kosovo, and Serbia puts the army on alert

MITROVICA, Kosovo, Dec 27 (Reuters) – Serb protesters in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo erected new barricades on Tuesday, hours after Serbia said it had put its army on high alert after weeks of rising tensions between Belgrade and. Pristina.

The Serbian Ministry of Defense said in a statement late on Monday that in response to recent events in the region and its belief that Kosovo is preparing to attack Serbs and remove barriers by force, President Aleksandar Vucic has ordered Serbia’s army and police to be put on the highest alert.

“There is no reason to panic, but there is cause for concern,” Serbian Defense Minister Milos Vucevic told RTS television late on Monday.

Since December 10, Serbs in northern Kosovo have erected several roadblocks in and around Mitrovica and exchanged fire with police after a Serb ex-policeman was arrested for allegedly assaulting serving police officers during an earlier protest.

About 50,000 Serbs live in the northern part of Albanian-majority Kosovo and refuse to recognize Pristina’s government or state. They see Belgrade as their capital and are supported by Serbia, whose independence Kosovo declared in 2008.

“Kosovo cannot engage in dialogue with criminal gangs and freedom of movement must be restored. There should be no roadblocks,” the Kosovo government said in a statement on Monday.

She added that the police have the capacity and willingness to act but are waiting for the NATO peacekeeping force of the Kosovo Force, which maintains a neutral role, to respond to their request to remove the roadblocks.

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“We urge all parties to help enable security and freedom of movement in Kosovo, and prevent misleading narratives from affecting the dialogue process,” the KFOR said in a statement.

And in Mitrovica, trucks stopped on Tuesday morning to block the road linking the predominantly Serb part of the town with the Albanian-majority part.

Local Serbs are demanding the release of the arrested officer and have other demands before they remove the barricades.

The ethnic Serb mayors of the northern municipalities, along with local judges and about 600 police officers, resigned last month in protest of the Kosovo government’s decision to replace vehicle license plates issued from Serbia with ones issued by Pristina.

(Covering) By Fatos Paetsi and Ivana Sekularac, Editing by Alexandra Hudson

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