Border unrest snags Serbia-Kosovo talks, Russia blasts NATO

28th September 2011, Comments 0 comments

Long-running Serbia-Kosovo talks broke down Wednesday in Brussels after violence on the disputed Balkan border blamed by Russia on NATO troops.

The latest round in a six-month bid by the European Union to help settle friction between the two neighbours was cancelled due to trouble on the border the previous day, the EU said.

Russia, a longtime ally of Serbia and among around 110 nations not to have recognised Kosovo's independence, said it was concerned by the use of violence by members of the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force.

"The violence committed against the Serb population by KFOR is of particular concern," the foreign ministry said in a statement, alleging that ambulances taking wounded Serbs to hospital had been fired on.

It called on the NATO-led force to respect neutrality and the "supremacy of the law".

NATO said shots had been fired and pipe bombs hurled at KFOR troops protecting Kosovo police and customs officers, as well as EU officials, who were trying to take control of two crossing points.

One KFOR soldier had fired a shot, injuring a civilian attempting to steal a wepon, NATO said.

The latest surge of tension on the border of northern Kosovo, which is home to a Serb majority, left four NATO soldiers and six Serb protesters wounded.

While the rest of Kosovo is predominantly ethnic Albanian, the Serbs there refuse to recognise the government in Pristina and are objecting to moves to allow border and customs officials from Kosovo to man border crossings.

In Brussels, senior EU diplomat Robert Cooper, who has been brokering talks between Belgrade and Pristina since March, said this week's seventh round of dialogue "did not take place because the Serb delegation was not ready to proceed with discussions today."

"The dialogue will continue when the Serbian side is ready to re-engage," he added in a statement.

Serbia had refused to sit down at the negotiating table after being told that the issue of the disputed border crossings could not be raised, an EU diplomat told AFP.

Cooper hinted as much in his statement, saying "the situation at the gates in northern Kosovo is not part of the dialogue nor the subject of any separate negotiations with Serbia."

The two sides had been due to resume efforts to resolve practical problems for ordinary people, caused by Serbia's refusal to recognise Kosovo's three-year-old independence.

On the agenda of this week's talks, for example, was a bid to end mobile phone headaches.

Kosovo bans Serbian operators, harming the Serb minority's connections with Serbia proper, and leaving its mobile operators to issue numbers with the national codes for Monaco or Slovenia.

The EU-sponsored dialogue had been seen as a move to tip-toe towards reconciliation and a key to efforts to move closer to the 27-nation EU.

But the latest round early this month failed to defuse mounting tension over the border crossings.

At those talks, the two sides agreed to lift mutual trade embargos after reaching a difficult compromise on customs stamps for Kosovo. Because Belgrade refuses to accept products stamped with symbols suggesting Kosovo is independent, Pristina agreed to a more neutral stamp, saying "Kosovo Customs".

But the following day Belgrade warned against the deployment of Kosovo customs officers at two flashpoint gates, Jarinje and Brnjak, the scene of violence in July in which a Kosovo police officer was killed.

The latest surge follows a move by Kosovo police and European rule of law officials, EULEX, to take control of the two crossings last week.

Fearing this would limit their access to Serbia, Serbs in northern Kosovo threw up barricades to block traffic to and from the posts. Unrest began when KFOR moved to dismantle a roadblock, coming under a hail of stones.

The troops hit back firing tear gas into the crowd and rubber bullets.

© 2011 AFP

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