WATCH: Kosovar and EU police and customs officers are deployed at two contested border crossings with Serbia in northern Kosovo on September 16. Meanwhile, some 1,000 Kosovo Serbs gathered in the town of Mitrovica to protest what they called "unilateral action" by Kosovo Albanians. (Reuters video)
By Milos Teodorovic
NORTHERN KOSOVO -- Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci says Kosovo police and customs officials, together with personnel from the European Union's law enforcement mission, have been deployed at two disputed crossings on the border with Serbia.
Thaci announced the deployment early on September 16 during a government meeting in Pristina.
"The process of implementing the operational plan has successfully begun this morning," he said. "Kosovo customs officers and police, together with EULEX and (NATO's) KFOR, are now at both border crossings."
The deployments come after Kosovo Serbs on September 15 forced the closure of two crossing gates on the border between Kosovo and Serbia amid a new standoff with the government in Pristina.
The crisis stems from a trade dispute between Belgrade and Pristina that has fueled divisions between Kosovo Serbs and ethnic Albanians.
NATO's Kosovo Force (KFOR) troops in July took control of the border crossings near the villages of Brnjak and Zubce after clashes between local residents and police deployed by Pristina which left one ethnic Albanian policeman dead.
Early on September 16, at least six NATO helicopters transported EULEX officials to the disputed border crossings between northern Kosovo and Serbia, landing at positions about 100 meters from where Serb demonstrators have been gathered since the previous day.
German KFOR soldiers guard the Jarinje border crossing between Kosovo and Serbia.
Kosovo's Interior Minister Bajram Rexhepi said in Pristina that EULEX was tasked with border and customs controls at the crossings, while the Kosovo authorities will have a "technical role."
A EULEX spokesman, Nicholas Hawton confirmed that staff and supplies were transported to the border crossings by helicopters. But he could not confirm whether Kosovo officials also had been transported there.
Serb demonstrators and the deployments by KFOR have essentially combined to form a double blockade that cuts off the Serb enclave in northern Kosovo from both southern Kosovo and Serbia.
KFOR moved in to block routes leading into Serbia overnight after a crowd of about 100 Serb demonstrators sealed off the area in a bid to prevent Kosovo's security forces or KFOR from reinforcing the border crossings.
Meanwhile, bridges in the divided northern city of Mitrovica -- the de facto partition line between southern and northern Kosovo -- have been blocked for the past two days by Kosovo Serbs.
A man directs traffic through barricades in the town of Leposavic, in Kosovo, on September 15, one day before the EU's EULEX mission was deployed to contested border crossings.
UN peacekeeping chief Edmond Mulet said KFOR troops had "officially closed" crossing gate number one at about 9 p.m. local time on September 15 because of the protesters. He said gate number 31 was "not officially closed" but had been sealed off by a Kosovo Serb-owned truck.
On September 16, Kosovo Serbs reinforced that blockade point by parking more cars and buses along the road.
A Serb villager from Brnjak told RFE/RL that the demonstrators need to keep calm but should maintain their roadblocks.
"We have to defend ourselves in dignified Serbian manner," he said. "There is nothing else we can do and I hope we will manage."
A villager from Zubce said the situation is tense because local Serbs want northern Kosovo to remain a part of Serbia rather than fall under the rule of authorities in Pristina.
People are excited and there is a reason for that," he said. "They don’t want to be taken away from their mother to be handed over to a stepmother. We got used to this. We are afraid and it is normal for us to be afraid in this situation."
A Serb man from the north side of Mitrovica said Serbs in the divided city are living in a terrible situation:
"The atmosphere is more than horrific," he said. "It's tense -- full of psychosis, fear and uncertainty. We feel how we feel and we will stay here. I think that Serbs are like a Phoenix and we will rise up from the ashes if necessary."
Pristina Slams Serbia For 'Destabilizing' The Region
At an urgent UN Security Council meeting on Kosovo on September 15, Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin warned that the border operation could lead to "bloodshed."
Serbian President Boris Tadic has also warned that such moves would raise tensions. He said any deployment of Pristina's customs officers or security forces would "represent an instant violation of the neutral status" of KFOR and EULEX.
But on September 16 Thaci maintained that Belgrade's refusal to recognize Kosovo's independence was the root cause of the dispute.
"On behalf of Kosovo's government, allow me to call on Belgrade to definitely give up its desperate attempts to destabilize the region," he said, "and, once and for all, to accept the fact that Kosovo is an independent, sovereign, and indivisible country."
Officials in Pristina's Foreign Affairs Ministry have told RFE/RL they think the Serb demonstrations at the border crossings are being financed by authorities in Belgrade.
After an urgent UN Security Council session late on September 15, Serbia's Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said the issue at stake is whether Kosovo's disputes are going to be resolved through dialogue or imposed unilaterally without consent of the interested parties.
"Serbia is prepared to resume the dialogue [on September 16]," Jeremic said. "I am sure that we can find a solution to this outstanding issue. And we simply fail to understand as to why is that course of action not preferred to unilateral steps that are threatening -- according to the UN assistant secretary-general but also to the vast majority of members states of the Security Council -- threaten peace and stability.”
Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic (right) consults with a colleague at the UN Security Council's emergency meeting on September 15.
Serbia State Secretary for Kosovo Oliver Ivanovic called for KFOR troops to remain neutral in the dispute in order to lessen the chances of intervention by Serb security forces.
"I'm pretty sure that [the] Serbian army will not come to do anything," Ivanovic said. "Simply it's out of the mind and that's out of our general policy toward Kosovo. But I simply expect that KFOR will do its job in the proper way and that will just diminish the necessity of any other intervention."
U.S. Calls For Calm
Meanwhile, the United States has said it is "concerned about the situation" in Kosovo.
"We call on all parties to maintain calm and to avoid precipitous actions and also to refrain from any kind of inflammatory rhetoric," said U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner while brifing reporters on September 16 in Washington.
Toner said the United States also commends "the both of KFOR and of EULEX to ensure a safe and secure environment and to enable the free movement of both goods and people in both directions over the Kosovo-Serbia border. It goes without saying that the free movement of people and goods over the border is in both Kosovo's and Serbia's interests here and is certainly in keeping with each country's EU aspirations.
Toner also stressed that "any roadblocks and barricades only serve to impair and restrict the daily lives of the people of Kosovo and Serbia."
with contributions from Arbana Vidishiqi in Pristina, Ron Synovitz and news agencies