KFOR authorities remove a barricade at Rudare.
By Linda Karadaku, Muhamet Brajshori and Igor Jovanovic in Pristina and Belgrade for Southeast European Times -- 01/06/12
KFOR soldiers from Germany face off against Kosovo Serbs on a bridge in the village of Rudare. [Reuters]
KFOR soldiers in armoured vehicles clashed with hundreds of Kosovo Serbs in the village of Rudare in northern Kosovo on Friday (June 1st), fuelling tensions on the border and providing the first test for the fledgling presidency of Serbia's Tomislav Nikolic.
Soldiers used tear gas and witnesses reported hearing gunfire in the operation, which was to remove barricades that had been erected last year. An official at a northern Mitrovica hospital confirmed to SETimes that three people were being treated, including one person with a bullet wound. Another was struck by a rubber bullet and the third patient had a head wound, the hospital said. Two KFOR soldiers were injured.
"KFOR will respond in self-defence accordingly, if that is necessary," NATO spokesman Uwe Nowitzki told Reuters.
Major Marc Stuemmler, deputy chief public affairs officer for KFOR, told SETimes that the operation was not timed to coincide with Nikolic's inauguration. He said the effort was part of an ongoing operation on freedom of movement.
Neither Belgrade nor Pristina issued an immediate statement on the KFOR operation in Rudare, although Nikolic was meeting on Friday with officials to discuss the situation.
Tensions on the Kosovo-Serbia border have been rising since Nikolic was elected president last month. His victory over two-term president Boris Tadic, who had been moving Serbia towards EU integration, came as a surprise for many.
Kosovo is primarily Albanian, but Serbs living along the border have rejected Pristina institutions. Serbia has refused to accept the independence of Kosovo, which broke away four years ago.
Kosovo Serbs erected barricades on the border last year, sparking a series of clashes that killed a Kosovo policeman and injured several NATO troops. As Belgrade, under Tadic's leadership, sought EU candidate status earlier this year, it agreed to open border crossings and engage in some negotiations with Pristina.
Nikolic, who was deputy prime minister under Slobodan Milosevic when NATO bombed Serbia in the late 1990s, was sworn into office on Thursday. In a speech to lawmakers, he reiterated his opposition to Kosovo.
"I want a house with two doors, to the east and to the west," Nikolic said. "I want a Serbia that will be an equal member of the European Union, and which will never give up its sovereignty, territorial integrity or Kosovo."
Friday's action came as Serbia's government is in transition. While Nikolic will have the first opportunity to create a government, his Serbian Progressive Party appears to lack the needed votes to create a majority in parliament. Tadic is attempting to create a coalition to form a government, with himself as prime minister.
Oliver Ivanovic, Serbia's state secretary for Kosovo in the outgoing government, told reporters that the situation in northern Kosovo "may escalate by the end of the day."
"I cannot understand what motivated KFOR to make such a move ... except that it had an intention to reinforce Pristina's position ahead of the resumption of talks (with Serbia) this year," he said.
Nikolic enjoys the support of many in northern Kosovo.
"Tadic didn't help us. He wanted to give Kosovo away. Serbs here think that Nikolic is better. We are very, very happy for his victory," Zlatibor Djordjevic, a Kosovo Serb from Leposavic in Kosovo's north, tells SETimes.
Nenad Mihajlovic, another Kosovo Serb, agreed.
"Tadic let us down several times. Nikolic is a patriot and he made it clear from the beginning that Kosovo will be a priority in his agenda," Mihajlovic told SETimes. "He has been on our side during our resistance to protect Kosovo. Therefore, he is the right person for us."
Pristina, meanwhile, has indicated that it will not release its claim on northern Kosovo, even though residents earlier this year were nearly unanimous in a non-binding resolution to reject Kosovo institutions. Prime Minster Hashim Thaci announced May 23rd that the government would open an administrative office in Mitrovica that would provide 80 new jobs and will maintain a budget of 4m euros a year for basic community services and infrastructure projects in north Mitrovica.
At a news conference Wednesday, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy called on Nikolic to continue the work done by Tadic and to press for improved regional relations.
"It is now important that all leaders in the region continue on the path of reforms to bring their countries closer to the EU," he said. "There are still important challenges to be addressed, but these can be overcome with strong political will and hard work."