By Fatos Bytyci
ZUPCE, Kosovo (Reuters) -NATO-led peacekeepers backed by helicopters on Monday oversaw the removal of roadblocks protesters had set up in Kosovo, where political tensions have flared more than two decades since a NATO campaign of airstrikes drove out Serbian forces.
Kosovo police said the removal of the barricades in the north of the country allowed two border crossings with Serbia to be reopened.
“Roads are now free for traffic to pass, both border crossings are open now for people and goods to cross,” the police said in a statement.
The removal of the barricades came after the Kosovo government postponed the implementation of a decision that would oblige ethnic Serbs, who are a majority in the north, to apply for documents and car license plates issued by Kosovan institutions.
The situation has revived faultlines with Serbia and Russia, neither of which recognise Western-aligned Kosovo as an independent state and have blocked its efforts to join the United Nations. Kosovo, recognised as a nation by more than 100 countries, is seeking to join NATO.
The government’s decision to postpone followed consultations with U.S. and EU ambassadors.
“Violence will not be tolerated. Those who use violence will be punished by the rule of law with the force of law,” Prime Minister Albin Kurti told journalists on Monday. He said a total of nine road bocks had been set up.
Fourteen years after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, some 50,000 ethnic Serbs in the north still use licence plates and papers issued by Serbian authorities, refusing to recognise the Kosovan government.
Ethnic Serbs had parked heavy machinery including trucks filled with gravel on roads near the border with Serbia on Sunday in protest at the new policy, which the government agreed to postpone until Sept. 1.
After that date, local Serbs will have 60 days to switch to Kosovo licence plates and accept documents issued at the border to Serbian citizens, including those living in Kosovo without local papers.
Now, thank God, some escalation has been avoided overnight, but this situation has only been delayed for 1 month,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday.
Tensions with Serbia remain high and Kosovo’s fragile peace is maintained by NATO’s KFOR mission, which has 3,770 troops on the ground. The mission issued a statement on Sunday say it was prepared to intervene in line with its mandate if stability was jeopardized.
Italian peacekeepers were visible in and around then northern town of Mitrovica on Sunday.
A Reuters reporter saw helicopters from the KFOR flying over the north of Kosovo, which borders Serbia. Peacekeepers were also present as the roadblocks were dismantled, standing at the roadside and chatting with residents.
Earlier on Monday, the government began issuing extra documents to Serbian citizens at the biggest border crossing between Serbia and Kosovo, Merdare. Kosovo’s government said it would stop issuing the documents once road blocks are removed.
A year ago, after local Serbs blocked the same roads in another row over licence plates, Kosovo’s government deployed special police forces and Belgrade flew fighter jets close to the border.
Serbia and Kosovo committed in 2013 to a dialogue sponsored by the European Union to try to resolve outstanding issues but little progress has been made.
(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Writing by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Frank Jack Daniel)
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