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Serbs Agree to Unblock Roads in Kosovo But Tensions Still Simmer

(Bloomberg) — Serbs in Kosovo agreed to start removing road barricades erected in protest against the largely ethnic-Albanian government, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said, even as he vowed to protect demonstrators that have raised the specter of renewed conflict.

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Vucic made the announcement late Wednesday after negotiations with representatives of the community that has blocked Kosovo’s borders with Serbia. Earlier, the US and the European Union called for an immediate end of the standoff, and Germany called on the Serbs in northern Kosovo to remove the “illegal” barricades.

Vucic read from a list of conditions set by protesters, with whom he held talks in the southern-Serbian city of Raska, that demanded the government in Pristina stop arresting Serbs and refrain from prosecuting protesters.

“If the terror continues, we will shut off north of Kosovo forever for Pristina’s institutions, and we demand guarantees that Kosovo will never be recognized,” Vucic read from the demands in a live television broadcast. He said it may take a few days to remove the barricades.

The government in Pristina has condemned the protests and accused Serbia of fomenting unrest to create instability and thwart Kosovo’s sovereignty after it declared independence in 2008. Earlier on Wednesday, Prime Minister Albin Kurti had said authorities would arrest protesters if they did not relent.

Vucic has also stoked tensions, accusing Kosovo’s government of trying to drive out the roughly 100,000 ethnic Serbs remaining in Kosovo. He put his nation’s military on high alert on Monday to respond if violence erupts between the Serb minority and ethnic-Albanian authorities.

The Serbian leader promised to never recognize the sovereignty of Kosovo, which is still seeking international acknowledgment that it is a country more than two decades after a NATO-led bombing campaign ended a war between the two sides by driving Serbian troops out.

“If they start arresting Serbs because of the barricades, you will have support from Serbia,” Vucic said “You have my word.”

The standoff has flared since earlier this year, when Kurti’s government tried to enforce new rules requiring Serbs switch to car plates and personal documents issued by Pristina rather than Belgrade. With many Serbs refusing to comply, Kosovo authorities have stepped up police presence in the north.

At the same time, Kurti has refused to grant autonomy to the Serb community, which Vucic’s says violates previous EU-brokered agreements between the neighbors on normalizing ties.

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