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NATO Concerned About Kosovo After Deadly Border Clashes

  • Stefan Bos

US soldiers serving in KFOR check vehicles from Serbia entering Kosovo after reopening a checkpoint, demolished and burned by angry Kosovo Serbs, in the village of Jarinje, on the Serbia-Kosovo border, July 28, 2011

US soldiers serving in KFOR check vehicles from Serbia entering Kosovo after reopening a checkpoint, demolished and burned by angry Kosovo Serbs, in the village of Jarinje, on the Serbia-Kosovo border, July 28, 2011

The U.N. Security Council is holding an emergency session to discuss Kosovo, where the NATO military alliance and the European Union are struggling to restore a tense peace after border clashes near Serbia killed one ethnic-Albanian policemen and injured four others. NATO says its peacekeepers have taken control of two contested border crossings, but concerns remain about the future.

Serb mob attack

Serbian television shows European Union police rushing to their cars and fleeing as about 200 mostly masked Serbs attack border posts in northern Kosovo near Serbia. The mob smashes doors and windows and soon set one of the outposts on fire in the overnight violence.

Eventually NATO, already stretched by wars in Afghanistan and Libya, managed to send American and French peacekeepers to the troubled area. NATO said Thursday its troops took control of the two border posts, despite being attacked by Serbs armed with fire bombs.

Alliance forces

The alliance has about 6,000 troops in Kosovo, 11 years after it forced Serb forces to end a crackdown on independence-seeking ethnic Albanians.

But the latest violence raises questions about whether NATO has enough troops available if ethnic clashes spread further in Kosovo.

The top-European diplomat in Kosovo, Pieter Feith, has acknowledged the international community is struggling to overcome tensions in northern Kosovo as the 60,000 Serbs there do not recognize the region's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia.

Serbs are not loyal to Kosovo

Feith, who heads the International Civilian Mission, explains that problems remain as the Serb community in northern Kosovo takes only orders from Belgrade and not from the central government in Kosovo's capital Prisina. But he tells Dutch radio the international community does not want the north to separate and does not want the situation to turn into a "frozen conflict" because it is strategically located in Europe.

Serbia's role

Local Serbs block access to border crossing in Jarinje on Kosovo-Serbia border to protest against Kosovo special police units operation overnight to take control of two disputed border crossings in Kosovo's northern Serb-run border region, July 26, 2011

Local Serbs block access to border crossing in Jarinje on Kosovo-Serbia border to protest against Kosovo special police units operation overnight to take control of two disputed border crossings in Kosovo's northern Serb-run border region, July 26, 2011

Kosovo's government has accused Serbia of encouraging the violence. But Belgrade's chief negotiator, Borko Stefanovic, has denied these charges.

"We do everything to calm the situation down," he said. "And we strongly condemn any violence."

The latest standoff began this week when Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci ordered special police forces to take over the two disputed border posts, which were previously manned by Serb members of the police under EU supervision.

Pristina wants to assert control over the north and enforce a ban on goods from Serbia to counter years of a similar boycott by Belgrade in response to Kosovo's 2008 secession - which Serbia does not recognize.

Thaci has defended the move, although the operation left one ethnic Albanian policeman dead and injured four others.

"Black Hole"

Prime Minister Thaci says in a statement the operation was the right decision, because in his words "it was a concrete step in establishing the rule of law" in the volatile north. He says "Kosovo can not remain indifferent" and allow a part of its territory to remain "a black hole, not only for itself, but also for Europe."

Thaci says the European Union's 3,000-member rule-of-law mission "hesitated and refused" to back Pristina's decision to control the two disputed crossings on the border with Serbia. The European Union has condemned Kosovo's operation.

US position

The U.S. government did not condemn the move, but criticized Kosovo for not having coordinated its actions with the international community. That view is shared by top-diplomat Feith.

He says "Kosovo government's wants to establish its authority also in the north." He says the countries he represents "support those efforts to a certain extent," but he adds they reject violence. Feith also says the international community wants the government's authority extended to the whole territory of Kosovo.

But the tensions are overshadowing Western attempts to normalize relations between Kosovo and neighboring Serbia, at a time when they are seeking closer ties with the European Union.

The U.N. Security Council continues to discuss the situation as NATO tries to mediate to help prevent the outbreak of another Balkan conflict.

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