Kosovo, Serbia reach deal to deescalate border tensions

Kosovo police secure the area as Ethnic Serbs gathered on barricades near the northern Kosovo border crossing of Jarinje on the ninth day of protest on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. Ethnic Serbs in Kosovo have been blocking the border for a ninth straight day to protest a decision by Kosovo authorities to start removing Serbian license plates from cars entering the country, raising fears such incidents could unleash much deeper tensions between the two Balkan foes. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia and Kosovo have reached an agreement to deescalate tensions on their mutual border that have been triggered by a dispute over vehicle license plates, a European Union mediator announced Thursday.

“We have a deal! After two days of intense negotiations, an agreement on de-escalation and the way forward has just been reached,” EU mediator Miroslav Lajcak tweeted.

Last week, Kosovo’s government deployed special police forces to the border crossings to impose a new rule of removing Serb license plates from cars coming into the country, saying that a 10-year-old deal had expired. Pristina said they were replicating what Serbia had done for the past decade.

Protesting the new Kosovo rule, Kosovo Serbs blocked the border with trucks, and people could only cross on foot. Serbian military jets and helicopters have been flying close to the border with Kosovo in an apparent show of force.

Lajcak tweeted the agreed three-point plan that calls for the withdrawal of special Kosovo police unit from the border crossings as well as the lifting of the Kosovo Serb blockades.

The NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, or KFOR, will be deployed to the border “to maintain a safe and secure environment and the freedom of movement,” the agreement says.

KFOR, with around 4,000 troops from 28 countries, is led by NATO but is supported by the United Nations, the European Union and others. Its aim is to stave off lingering ethnic tensions between majority Kosovo Albanians and minority Kosovo Serbs after Kosovo broke away and became independent from Serbia in 2008.

Serbia, supported by its allies Russia and China, doesn’t recognize the statehood of its former province which is recognized by the United States and most of the West.

The EU welcomed the agreement and urged both parties to “constructively engage in the dialogue in order to make swift progress on comprehensive normalization of their relations.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who was on a tour of the Balkan region, welcomed the deal between Kosovo and Serbia.

“It’s good for the whole region,” she said. “The dialogue now needs to continue.”

The agreement also said that instead of removing license plates and issuing temporary ones, both Serbia and Kosovo will introduce stickers that will be put over the existing car registrations, adding that this is a temporary measure until a permanent solution is found.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said he is “personally very happy” about the deal that “preserves peace in the region.”

Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti said that Kosovo special police will leave the border area as long as Kosovo Serbs lift the barricades. He said that KFOR will remain at the border for about two weeks “to verify that everything is safe.”

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AP Writers Samuel Petrequin in Brussels and Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, contributed.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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