MITROVICA, Kosovo — Serbs erected more barricades in northern Kosovo on Tuesday and defied international demands to remove earlier ones, a day after Serbia put its troops near the border at a high level of combat readiness.
The new barriers, made from heavily loaded trucks, were put up overnight in Mitrovica, a northern Kosovo city divided between Kosovo Serbs and ethnic Albanians, who make up the majority in Kosovo as a whole.
It was the first time since the recent crisis began that Serbs had blocked streets in a major city. Until now, roadblocks have been placed on the 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” the Kosovo Serbs in the north of the country and forcibly remove several of the roadblocks that the Serbs began putting up 18 days ago to protest the arrest of a former Serb policeman. from Kosovo.
On Tuesday, Vucic addressed reporters along with Serbian Patriarch Porfirije, who was banned by Kosovo authorities on Monday from entering Kosovo and visiting a medieval Serbian church there ahead of Serbian Orthodox Christmas, which falls on January 7. .
In his usual fashion, Vucic criticized the Western and ethnic Kosovo Albanian authorities for conspiring together to “riot and kill the Serbs” manning the barricades.
“Their goal is to drive Serbia out of Kosovo… with the help of their agents in Belgrade,” he said, apparently referring to the rare independent and opposition media, which criticizes his handling of the Kosovo crisis and his increasingly autocratic policies
However, he said that he is currently negotiating with mediators from the European Union and the United States “on the preservation of peace and the search for a compromise solution” for the current crisis.
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic on Tuesday refused to comment on claims that Serbia had sent several armed men to Kosovo who are likely manning the barricades.
“I won’t discuss that with you,” he said when asked by a reporter if he knew if the “Serbian armed forces” were currently present in Kosovo.
Kosovo officials have accused Vucic of using Serbian state media to stir up trouble and trigger incidents that could act as a pretext for armed intervention in the former Serbian province.
Petar Petkovic, a Serbian government official in charge of contacts with Kosovo Serbs, told Serbian state television RTS that combat readiness for Serb troops was introduced because Kosovo had done the same. Kosovo officials have denied that the country has raised its security alert levels.
Petkovic stated that heavily armed Kosovo units want to attack Kosovo Serbs, including “women, old people, children, men. Our people who on the barricades are only defending the right to live.”
Kosovo has called on NATO-led peacekeepers stationed there to remove the barriers, hinting that Pristina forces will do so if the KFOR force does not react. Around 4,000 NATO-led peacekeepers have been stationed in Kosovo since the 1999 war, which ended with Belgrade’s loss of control of 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 peaked over the past month. Western attempts to reach a negotiated settlement have failed and Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo’s statehood.
Both KFOR and the EU have called on Pristina and Belgrade to show restraint and avoid provocations.
Kosovo remains a potential flashpoint in the Balkans years after the 1998-1999 Kosovo war ended with a NATO intervention that drove Serb troops out of the former Serbian province.
Dusan Stojanovic reported from Belgrade, Serbia.