Tensions in Kosovo challenge peace talks

August 5, 2011 - 9:29 AM

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — The angry Serb mobs have dwindled and NATO reinforcements are regaining the upper hand, but over a week of ugly tensions on the border between Serbia and Kosovo has shattered hopes of a quick rapprochement between the two Balkan foes.

Diplomats say that only the resumption of direct talks between Belgrade and Pristina, which yielded a small but encouraging agreement last month, could bring peace to the ethnically tense southern corner of Europe.

Both sides have emerged weaker: Kosovo, this time the aggressor, has lost unwavering support from the West as it frantically seeks allies for its 2008 declaration of independence.

Serbia's government, busy trying to shed the nation's image as a warmongering outsider, stands accused of weakness and betrayal by emboldened and ever-more popular nationalists furious at how Kosovo police tried to unilaterally take over border crossings with no punishment.

On July 25, a Kosovar policeman was killed and a border point was burned down by angry Serb mobs before NATO peacekeepers took over two checkpoints between Kosovo and Serbia.

Both EU and NATO officials expressed disappointment that the two sides, which fought a bitter 1998-99 war, had allowed the situation to deteriorate so fast, especially after EU-mediated talks between Serbia and Kosovo resulted in July in the first deals the two governments had ever made.

At the time, the agreements to ease traffic restrictions and other practical issues were seen as a major step forward and a significant success for the EU.

The unexpected move by Kosovo's police to seize control of the border crossings — which drew an immediate rebuke from the EU — was seen as an "unnecessary provocation," said an EU official who declined to be named because he isn't authorized to speak on the subject.

Officials at NATO noted that the alliance's mandate in Kosovo was to maintain a safe and secure environment.

"It's pretty self-evident now that the unilateral actions of one side prompted a temporary breakdown of that security environment, which regrettably resulted in one death and which required the rapid deployment" of the NATO-led force in Kosovo, said an official who could not be named under standing rules.

"What we want to see is a negotiated settlement and an end to unilateral actions and violence."

Serbian officials say there will be no resumption of talks until the border posts are reopened for a free flow of goods from Serbia to the minority Kosovo Serbs who live in an enclave in the north of Kosovo.

But Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci is adamant not to back down from his drive to extend authority over the Serb-run north, which rejects Kosovo's independence.

"Both Pristina and Belgrade should not set preconditions for the continuation of the talks," said Thomas Countryman, the U.S. envoy for the Balkans. "They should return to the negotiating table."

Countryman, a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, also denied Serbian officials' claims that the U.S., the main backer of Kosovo's independence from Serbia, was informed about the Kosovo police action to try take over the border posts.

"We were not informed and we did not approve such an approach," Countryman said.

Meanwhile in Serbia, pro-Western president Boris Tadic is struggling to contain the anger of nationalists who say his government should have taken a tougher action, even including military intervention, to protect Serbs in Kosovo.

The nationalists are calling for Serbia to immediately ditch its bid to join the European Union, allowing it a free hand to undertake a more radical action in Kosovo.

Serbia should "immediately stop saying Europe has no alternative, partly because (membership) is not such a brilliant alternative, and partly because the EU would no longer be able to shamelessly blackmail us with its membership or candidate status," said prominent nationalist political analyst Djordje Vukadinovic.

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Nebi Qena reported from Kosovo. Slobodan Lekic contributed from Brussels and Ian Phillips from Prague.