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19 Sep, 2011 06:37

Kosovo Serbs battle isolation as border dispute intensifies

This week, the EU will discuss Serbian-backed proposals to break a deadlock in Northern Kosovo, where Pristina recently seized two disputed border crossings. The move has sparked outrage among local Serbs.

A standoff develops on the border – Kosovo authorities backed by EU and NATO forces on one side, ethnic Serbian protestors on the other.  "This is our land, our territory," says Serb protestor Aleksander Virijevic.Refusing to accept the Kosovan government's attempt to take over two border crossings in the north previously controlled by neighboring Serbia, the protesters are standing firm at the barricades they erected, and neither side is willing to back down. "I don’t think that anyone in the world can tell these Serbian people to give up, accept the independent Kosovo and go home. It will never happen, they will not do it," stated Borislav Stefanovich, Belgrade's chief negotiator with Pristina.For the time being, the protestors appear calm, but you do not have to look hard to see signs of the underlying tension. All along the roads in the north, one comes across makeshift roadblocks. Serbian people are using gravel, rocks, pieces of wood – whatever they can get their hands on to disrupt the flow of traffic in this area.                           Protestors have vowed the blocks will remain in place until a dialogue begins about who will man the border posts and what will happen with the revenue collected from the customs tax.   “We are not going to move until a solution is reached that works for both sides. The situation right now is unacceptable,” said Aleksander Virijevic.Back in July, violence erupted when Kosovan authorities tried to take control of the border posts after Kosovan Prime Minister Hashim Thaci ordered a trade ban on Serbia.The conflict resulted in the death of a policeman. Now, neither side wants to take action for fear it could once again ignite tension. “Considering the major events taking place right now, and taking into account the concerns of the Serbian population living in the north, I would say that removing those barricades from the streets and the main highways is not a priority right now,” maintained Kosovan police officer Besim Hoti.                         Fending off charges that they have breached their neutral position with regard to Kosovo, EULEX have said the monitoring of the customs gate will bring much-needed law and order to the north, and Pristina says it acted within the terms of an agreement – a claim that Belgrade strongly refutes. “It is a serious incident and step back on the road to normalizing relations. Once you put a customs official, then it is a flag and then it is a coat of arms. And before you know it you will have a so-called Kosovo law and people here will be circled by something that looks like Kosovo state! They simply cannot accept it,” explained Stefanovich.There's now talk amongst Serbians of building new roads to bypass the checkpoints if the Kosovan authorities refuse to leave. For the time being, the border crossing remains blocked, and there are many obstacles to be overcome on the road to finding a resolution.