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NATO starts tearing down Kosovo border barricades

24 october 2011, 10:09
NATO-led peacekeeping troops fired tear gas to disperse protesters Thursday as they began dismantling a barricade erected by Serbs in northern Kosovo near a disputed border crossing with Serbia, AFP reports.

No injuries were reported in the incident at around 6:00am (0400 GMT) as an armed transporter approached to remove a truck in the centre of the Kosovo Serbs' barricade, an AFP correspondent reported.

Some 150 Serbs tried to prevent Kosovo peacekeeping force (KFOR) soldiers from dismantling the roadblock near the Brnjak crossing into Serbia, but dispersed after the tear gas was released.

The situation remained calm but tense as German and Austrian soldiers, equipped with anti-riot gear, cordoned off the space around the barricade, while other KFOR troops were removing tracks and tyres used to block the road.

KFOR was repeatedly urging Serbs to go home, warning that they were in "a KFOR protected zone" after several hundreds Serbs staged a sit-down protest on the road in order to stop further KFOR's action.

"Go home, otherwise we will be forced to use force," a KFOR representative said in Serbian over a public-address system.

Serbs in northern Kosovo have erected 16 barricades on the roads leading to two border crossings into Serbia including at Brnjak after Kosovo authorities said in July they wanted to replace ethnic-Serb customs officials at the border with Albanians.

Pristina had temporarily imposed a ban on imports from Serbia as part of a trade dispute with Belgrade and said ethnic-Serb customs officials where sabotaging the ban.

Earlier, two convoys of at least 100 armed transport vehicles of the Kosovo peacekeeping forces (KFOR) moved towards the Brnjak border crossing into Serbia.

The convoys stopped a few hundred meters (yards) before the roadblocks on the two roads leading to the Brnjak crossing as a few hundred local Serbs gathered at each of the barricades.

The NATO move came after talks with Serb leaders in northern Kosovo on Wednesday had failed to produce a deal over the barricades which block access to the sensitive border crossings between Serbia and its breakaway former province Kosovo.

Following the new development Serbian President Boris Tadic urged both sides to remain calm, Tanjug news agency reported.

"I demand KFOR and EULEX (the EU mission in Kosovo) to restrain from the use of force," Tadic told the agency, adding that local Serb "citizens must not undertake violent reactions at any price."

Around 40,000 Serbs live in northern Kosovo, making up the majority in a number of towns. They refuse to recognise the authority of the ethnic Albanian government in Pristina, which unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

The security of the Kosovo officials at the disputed border posts is currently guaranteed by KFOR and EULEX, which is mandated to oversee police and customs services.

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