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tensions between Kosovo and Serbia erupt;  NATO-led KFOR monitors border protests

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Tensions erupted between Kosovo and Serbia over the weekend, raising concerns about the possibility of further unrest in the Balkans at a time when Western allies focus on the war in Ukraine.

The NATO-led international peacekeeping force in Kosovo, known as KFOR, said in a statement that it was closely monitoring the situation in Kosovo and was “ready to intervene if the stability is threatened”.

Ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo municipalities bordering Serbia blocked roads and clashed with police on the eve of a new law requiring them to replace their license plates with Kosovo ones.

The new rules were due to come into force on Monday and would also have required holders of Serbian identity cards and passports to obtain an additional document to enter Kosovo, as is already the case for Kosovars entering Serbia.

Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top diplomat, welcomed Kosovo’s decision to postpone the new measures until September 1 and called to all roadblocks to be removed immediately. In a report posted on TwitterEU Special Envoy Miroslav Lajcak expressed his gratitude to US Ambassador to Kosovo Jeffrey M. Hovenier “for his strong support”.

No one was injured during Sunday’s protests, Kosovo police said, although gunfire was heard in a number of locations, some of them directed at police units. Protesters parked trucks and other heavy machinery on roads leading to two border crossings.

The weekend unrest comes as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has stoked tensions in the region. Analysts say Russia’s nationalist and revisionist worldview has found a receptive audience in the region, particularly President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia, Bosnian Serb political leader Milorad Dodik and Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary.

Serbia, a traditional Russian ally, has rejected EU and US calls to join sanctions against Moscow. Russia — like China — still does not recognize Kosovo’s independence and denounces NATO’s war against its ally. The Western military alliance launched a bombing campaign in 1999 that hit targets in what was then Serbia and Montenegro combined in an effort to stop Serbia’s attack on Kosovo Albanians who were fighting for the ‘autonomy.

Analysis: Russia’s war in Ukraine finds echoes in the Balkans

Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, on Sunday accused Kosovo of using new laws on licensing and identity documents as a step towards evicting the Serb population.

“We call on Pristina and the United States and the European Union that support it to stop the provocations and to respect the rights of the Serbs in Kosovo,” she said, according to the Russian news agency Tass, calling the new “discriminatory” requirements.

“If they dare to persecute, mistreat and kill Serbs, Serbia will win,” Serbian President Vucic told a press conference on Sunday. Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti accused Vucic of inciting violence.

Ishaan Tharoor contributed to this report.



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