NATO chief urges calm as tensions rise in Kosovo

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NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged calm in Kosovo Thursday as tensions rose in its northern region after warnings Pristina could take control Friday of disputed border crossings with Serbia.

"I look to all communities and all leaders to show the utmost care in their actions in the coming days so they create a more secure future not a more unstable (one)," Rasmussen said, warning that unilateral moves by any side would be "unhelpful".

"There can be no turning back. NATO has spent 12 years ensuring stability and security. We will not allow that achievement to be put at risk," he said, in his first visit to the region since NATO-led KFOR troops stepped in to quell violent clashes following a trade row late July.

Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci stressed again that his government would take control of the disputed border posts on Friday.

"The operational plan (to re-establish control) enters into force on September 16," he said.

NATO'S 6,000-strong KFOR force is currently manning the posts, but Pristina says it wants full control over the crossings, a move rejected by Serbia.

Serbia's ally Russia warned at the United Nations Thursday that the situation along the north Kosovo border could lead to new bloodshed.

"There is a real danger of conflict and bloodshed because the international presence, is, according to our information, together with the Pristina authorities, planning for a forceful takeover operation in northern Kosovo which is a very bad thing," Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin said.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon also joined international calls for calm in Kosovo ahead of a Security Council meeting called by Russia.

Observers say Thaci's forceful rhetoric is mostly to boost his status with the electorate after he faced claims that he gave too much away in negotiations with Belgrade.

Thaci maintains that the Pristina authorities will have command power at the posts with the EU-mission EULEX providing monitoring. However EULEX itself says the crossings will be manned by "mixed teams" of EU and Kosovo officials while EULEX would handle the "police and customs operational work".

This is likely to defuse tension as Belgrade's biggest gripe was against Kosovo customs officers being on the crossings, and it now seems that EULEX officials will be dealing with the formalities.

After initially warning that unilateral action by Pristina threatened peace and security in the whole region, Serbian President Boris Tadic later on Thursday seemed to have softened his tone, calling for restraint on all sides.

"I call on both Serbs and Albanians to show restraint and to support a dialogue as the only way to peacefully solve this historic problem," he said.

"There is no problem that cannot be solved through an agreement, including the issue of trade of goods on the administrative crossings," Tadic added.

Tensions were particularly high Thursday in Kosovo's divided city of Kosovska Mitrovica, where Serbs a day earlier blocked the main bridge over the Ibar river that divides ethnic Serbs in the north of the town from ethnic Albanians in the south.

In July, the Kosovo government dispatched special police to take over the two posts to enforce a ban on imports from Serbia that was imposed in retaliation for an earlier Serbian ban on goods from Kosovo.

The Serbian ban was imposed in protest at Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence from Belgrade.

Kosovo said it needed to install ethnic Albanians at the two posts, because Serb guards were not enforcing the ban.

Serbs in northern Kosovo then clashed with the police, killing one ethnic Albanian police officer. Four others were injured in the ensuing violence.

To stop the situation from deteriorating further KFOR -- which has overseen security in the ethnic Albanian-majority territory since a war with Serbia ended in 1999 -- took control of the crossings.

After both sides reached a deal during Brussels-mediated talks to solve the trade row, the embargoes are expected to be lifted Friday.

Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008 has been recognised by more than 80 countries including the United States and most of the European Union.

Serbia, which considers the region the cradle of Serb civilisation, rejects independence.

© 2011 AFP

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