MITROVICA, Kosovo (AP) – Kosovo Albanians on Sunday blocked roads and burned tires on a planned route by Serbia’s president in the former Serbian province, further fueling tensions between the two Balkan foes.
During his two-day trip, President Aleksandar Vucic planned to visit a Serb-populated village in central Kosovo on Sunday, but roads leading to the region were blocked by wooden logs, trucks and heavy machinery, preventing him from reaching his destination.
Vucic and his entourage were stopped by Kosovo police on the road to the Drenica region and were told they couldn’t continue for security reasons. Drenica was in the scene of the first crackdown by Serb troops against ethnic Albanian separatists in 1998.
Kosovo President Hashim Thaci said that opposition by Kosovo’s citizens to the visit by Vucic is understandable, but he urged restraint for the sake of peace and reconciliation after the 1998-99 war.
Thaci said on his Facebook page that the blockade “shows that the pain and war injuries are still fresh.” Thaci added that as Kosovo and Serbia seek to mend ties, “the protests and road-blocking don’t help us.”
“We should know to raise beyond ourselves, beyond the injuries and manifold pain,” said Thaci, who was a rebel commander during the war. “We should do this on behalf of peace and reconciliation.”
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Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj wrote on Facebook that he has “cancelled the permission issued by the Foreign Affairs Ministry for Serb President’s visit to the Drenica zone.”
“Citizens’ security is above all,” he added.
Vucic said gunfire could be heard from the roadblocks.
“I don’t like guns, but we won’t allow anyone to harass Serbs in Kosovo,” Vucic said. He did not indicate what kind of response he had in mind, but said that he won’t call for the arming of Kosovo Serbs in retaliation.
Kosovo was a Serbian province when a crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in 1998-99 led to the deaths of more than 10,000 people.
The conflict ended with NATO intervention, which forced Serbia to pull out of the province. Kosovo declared independence in 2008, a move that Serbia doesn’t recognize.
In his long-anticipated keynote speech in the divided Kosovo town of Mitrovica, the Serbian president said his country no longer wants to wage wars in Kosovo, but is seeking to build trust and friendship with majority Albanians.
“I am talking about reality. I do not sing battle songs, I don’t want to incite war, I won’t promise arms and ammunition,” Vucic said, addressing thousands of Kosovo Serbs. “I wish to believe that we can now have an era of rational, and why not in 50 years, friendly relations with the Albanians.”
But Vucic also issued a veiled threat, saying that Serbia will defend minority Serbs in its former province if they come under attack. Serbs represent about 10 percent of Kosovo’s 2 million people.
“We are not playing heroes, but I ask everyone on the other side to take my words seriously and accept them,” he said. “I will not think twice to protect our people if our people are attacked in any part of Kosovo.”
In the lengthy address, Vucic reiterated that an agreement to resolve the long-standing dispute with Kosovo was still far away, but promised to work to achieve it.
Despite expectations, Vucic failed to outline a concrete proposal for a future deal with Kosovo. Serbia and Kosovo must mend ties to advance toward European Union membership. The two sides have been engaged in EU-mediated negotiations.
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Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic blamed the road blockades on former Kosovo Liberation Army soldiers who fought Serb troops in Kosovo during the war.
Stefanovic said that security in Kosovo has deteriorated and that the gunshots are “a signal that Serbs are not welcome” in Kosovo.
He said that NATO-led KFOR troops and Kosovo police were being tested to provide safe passage for Vucic.
NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo said the safety of the Serbian president during his visit to Kosovo wasn’t threatened despite the roadblocks.
Dusan Stojanovic and Jovana Gec contributed from Belgrade, Serbia, and Llazar Semini from Tirana, Albania.