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Serbs put up new roadblocks as tensions soar in Kosovo

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Serbians have erected more roadblocks in northern Kosovo and defied international demands to remove others put up earlier, a day after Belgrade placed 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 in protest at the arrest of a former Kosovo Serb policemen.

Mr Vucic addressed reporters together with Serbian Patriarch Porfirije, who was barred by Kosovo authorities on Monday from entering Kosovo and visiting a medieval Serb church there before Serbian Orthodox Christmas, which is celebrated on January 7.

The Serbian president blasted the West and Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian authorities of plotting together to “trigger unrest and kill the Serbs” who are manning the barricades.

“Their aim is to expel Serbia out of Kosovo … with the help of their agents in Belgrade,” he said, apparently referring to the rare opposition and independent media, which are critical of his handling of the Kosovo crisis and his increasingly autocratic policies.

But he said that he was negotiating with European Union and US mediators “on preserving peace and finding a compromise solution” for the current crisis.

Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to comment on claims that Serbia had sent a number of armed men into Kosovo who were probably manning the barricades.

“I will not discuss that with you,” she said when asked by a reporter if she knew whether “Serbia’s armed forces” were currently present in Kosovo.

Meanwhile, Petar Petkovic, a Serbian government official in charge of contacts with Kosovo Serbs, told Serbian state RTS TV that the combat readiness of troops was introduced because Kosovo had done the same thing.

He claimed that heavily armed Kosovan units want to attack 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”.

Kosovan 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.

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 does not act.

About 4,000 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 a new high over the past month.

Western attempts to reach a negotiated settlement have failed, with Serbia refusing to recognise Kosovo’s statehood.

KFOR and the European Union have 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 Belgrade’s troops out of the former Serbian province.

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