Serbs on December 27 erected more roadblocks in northern Kosovo and defied international demands to remove those placed earlier, a day after Serbia put its troops near the border on a high level of combat readiness.
The new barriers, made of laden trucks, were put up overnight in Mitrovica, a northern Kosovo town divided between Kosovo Serbs and ethnic Albanians, who represent the majority in Kosovo as a whole.
It is the first time since the recent crisis started that Serbs have blocked streets in one of the main towns. Until now, barricades had been set on roads leading to the Kosovo-Serbia border.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said he ordered the army’s highest state of alert to “protect our people (in Kosovo) and preserve Serbia.”
He claimed that Pristina is preparing to “attack” Kosovo Serbs in the north of the country and remove by force several of the roadblocks that Serbs started putting up 18 days ago to protest the arrest of a former Kosovo Serb policemen.
Kosovo officials have accused Mr. Vucic of using his state media to stir trouble and trigger incidents that would act as a pretext for an armed intervention in the former Serbian province.
Petar Petkovic, a Serbian government official in charge of contacts with Kosovo Serbs, told the Serbian state RTS TV that the combat readiness of Serb troops was introduced because Kosovo had done the same thing.
He claimed that heavily armed Kosovo units want to attack the Kosovo Serbs “with the intention of attacking our women, the elderly, children, men. Our people who at the barricades are just defending the right to live.”
Kosovo has asked NATO-led peacekeepers stationed there to remove the barricades and hinted that Pristina’s forces will do it if the KFOR force doesn’t react. Some 4,000 NATO-led peacekeepers have been stationed in Kosovo since the 1999 war that ended with Belgrade losing control over the territory.
Any Serbian armed intervention in Kosovo would likely result in a clash with NATO forces and would mean a major escalation of tensions in the Balkans, which are still reeling from the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Tensions between Kosovo, which declared independence after a war in 2008, and Serbia have reached their peak over the past month. Western attempts to reach a negotiated settlement have failed, with Serbia refusing to recognize Kosovo’s statehood.
KFOR and the European Union have both asked Pristina and Belgrade to show restraint and avoid provocations.
Kosovo remains a potential flashpoint in the Balkans years after the 1998-99 Kosovo war that ended with a NATO intervention that pushed the Serbian troops out of the former Serbian province.