Local Serbs erected more roadblocks in northern Kosovo and defied demands to remove barricades erected earlier, a day after Serbia placed its forces near the border on a high level of combat readiness.
The new truck barriers were installed in the early hours of Tuesday in the city of Mitrovica. The city is divided between Kosovo Serbs and Albanians, who make up the majority in Kosovo as a whole.
It is the first time since a crisis erupted in the region in early December that Serbs have blocked the streets of a major city. Until now, barriers have been placed on the roads to the borders of Kosovo and Serbia.
The developments came after President Aleksandar Vucic ordered on Monday to put the Serbian army and police on high alert in response to recent events in the region.
Vucic claimed that Pristina was preparing to “attack” ethnic Serb areas in northern Kosovo and to forcibly remove many roadblocks that Serbs began erecting 18 days ago to protest the arrest of a former Kosovo Serb policeman.
The Kosovo government has not yet responded to Vucic’s allegations, but it has previously accused the Serbian leader of trying to foment unrest and provoke incidents that could serve as a pretext for armed intervention in the former Serbian province.
Meanwhile, Pristina called on NATO-led peacekeepers (KFOR or KFOR) stationed in the country to remove roadblocks erected by ethnic Serbs and hinted that his forces would do so if the international security force did not take action.
About 4,000 NATO-led peacekeepers have been stationed in Kosovo since the 1999 war that ended with Belgrade losing control of the province.
Tensions rise in the Balkans
The latest uproar first erupted on 10 December, when Serbs set up several roadblocks and exchanged fire with police after a Serbian ex-policeman was arrested for allegedly assaulting officers on duty during an earlier event.
Serbs are calling for the release of the arrested officer and they have other demands before removing the barriers.
This comes after an earlier issue related to the issuance of number plates for cars. Kosovo has long wanted Serbs in the north to replace their Serbian license plates with ones issued by Pristina, as part of the government’s campaign to assert its authority over its territory.
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 recent decision to replace license plates issued from Serbia with ones issued by Pristina.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but it remains home to a Belgrade-backed Northern Serb minority.
The declaration of independence came after 10 years of war between Albanian fighters and Serbian forces that left 13,000 people dead, most of them Albanians.
The war ended with a NATO intervention that pushed Serbian forces out of today’s Kosovo.
Serbia, backed by allies Russia and China, does not recognize its former territory, but most Western countries do, including the United States.
Some 50,000 Serbs living there refuse to recognize the authority of Pristina and still see themselves as part of Serbia.
Belgrade accuses Pristina of violating the rights of the Serb minority.