Serbian president warns of possible Kosovo clashes as train row escalates

Serbian president warns of possible Kosovo clashes as train row escalates
By bne IntelliNews January 15, 2017

Serbia and Kosovo are on the brink of clashes, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic claimed on January 15. His warning followed a row between the two countries over a Serbian attempt to send a train painted with the sentence “Kosovo is Serbian” in over 20 languages into Kosovo. 

Although the train turned back before it entered Kosovo, the incident added to already heightened tensions following the arrest of former Kosovan Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj in France on a Serbian warrant. 

The Russian-made train was supposed to run from the Serbian capital to the northern part of Kosovoska Mitrovica, a town divided between Serbs and Albanians, in northern Kosovo, but was sent back on the orders of Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic following threats from the Kosovan authorities to arrest the driver and passengers. 

The line was reopened for the first time since the end of Nato bombing in 1999 on January 14, Orthodox New Year. The train’s interior is decorated with the imagery of Serb cultural and spiritual heritage located in Kosovo protected by UNESCO.

Kosovan border police had been ordered to stop the train on the administrative line between Kosovo and Serbia-Jarinje, news agency Srna reported. Additional forces, including those from the ROSU special unit, were sent to Jarinje.

Also on January 14, Kosovan media reported that explosives had been set on the railway near to Jarinje, on the Kosovan side. Police later checked the whole railway and confirmed that no mines had been set and that the railway was safe.

The following day, Nikolic said that by sending the ROSU special police unit to northern Kosovo, Pristina had breached the 2014 Brussels Agreement. ROSU units are prohibited from crossing the Ibar River without authorisation from Nato and the local community. 

“We were on the edge of clashes, Albanians want war,” Nikolic said after a session of the National Security Council on January 15. 

He warned that further actions by the authorities in Pristina intended “to cause a conflict” would “end badly”.

“We will act in line with the Serbian Constitution, which is clear. We are obliged to secure every inch of our territory and every citizen. In that we are united and they should not provoke us,” Nikolic said.

However, Kosovan officials have accused the Serbian side of a deliberate provocation. 

“Kosovo respects freedom of movement of people and goods. But, the entrance of the train painted with nationalistic slogans from Serbia, which are contrary to the constitution and law of Kosovo, is completely unacceptable,” Kosovo’s President Hashim Taci wrote on his Facebook page on January 14. “Moreover, in this train were passengers and senior officials from Serbia who do not have permission to enter Kosovo.”

Kosovo’s Prime Minister Isa Mustafa held an extraordinary press conference on January 14, during which he said local state institutions were dealing with the “completely unnecessary situation” created by Serbia’s “dishonest games”. He also claimed that Belgrade’s intentions had been to destabilise the situation in Kosovo, according to a Kosovan government statement.

Both sides have asked the international community for mediation and help in resolving the situation. 

“We took all measures to inform international actors about the situation and engaged all state institutions and took all measures which are in accordance with the law. We had meetings with relevant institutions and international actors,” Mustafa said. 

The Serbian government said on January 14 that Vucic had informed EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Federica Mogherini that he was “disappointed” with the reaction of the EU to the developments.

Meanwhile, European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic told Pristina-based broadcaster Klan Kosova that resolving the train issue was not the EU’s job.

“Not only this issue but all problems Kosovo and Serbia have must be handled through joint dialogue,” Kocijancic told the broadcaster.

Tensions between Belgrade and Pristina have been escalating since January 4 when Haradinaj, Kosovo’s former prime minister and the leader of the opposition Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), was taken into police custody in France, on a Serbian arrest warrant for war crimes against Serb civilians committed in Kosovo during 1998 and 1999. 

Following the news of Haradinaj’s arrest and Serbia’s announcement that it will request his extradition, Albanians throughout the region and elsewhere have launched protests. 

On January 12, a court in the French town of Colmar released Haradinaj on bail on the condition that he stays in France. Haradinaj must appear before the French authorities twice a week, pending a ruling on whether to extradite him to Serbia.