Protesting Serbs in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo erected new barricades on Tuesday, hours after Serbia said it had put its army on the highest combat alert following weeks of escalating tensions between Belgrade and Pristina.
Serbia’s defense ministry said in a statement late on Monday that in response to the latest events in the region and its belief that Kosovo was preparing to attack Serbs and forcefully remove the barricades, President Aleksandar Vucic had ordered Serbia’s army and police to be put on the highest alert.
“There is no reason to panic, but there is reason to be concerned,” Serbia’s defense minister Milos Vucevic told RTS television late on Monday.
Since December 10, Serbs in northern Kosovo have erected multiple roadblocks in and around Mitrovica and exchanged fire with police after the arrest of a former Serb policeman for allegedly assaulting serving police officers during a previous protest.
Around 50,000 Serbs live in the northern part of Albanian-majority Kosovo and refuse to recognize the Pristina government or the state. They see Belgrade as their capital and are backed by Serbia, from which Kosovo declared independence in 2008.
“Kosovo cannot engage in dialogue with criminal gangs and freedom of movement should be restored. There should not be barricades on any road,” the Kosovan government said in a statement on Monday.
It added police had the capacity and readiness to act but were waiting for NATO’s KFOR Kosovo peace-keeping force, which maintains a neutral role, to respond to their request to remove the barricades.
“We urge all sides to help enable security and freedom of movement in Kosovo, and prevent misleading narratives from affecting the dialogue process,” KFOR said in a statement.
In Mitrovica on Tuesday morning trucks were parked to block the road linking the Serb-majority part of the town with the Albanian-majority part.
The local Serbs are demanding the release of the arrested officer and have other demands before they remove the barricades.
Ethnic Serb mayors in northern municipalities, along with local judges and some 600 police officers, resigned last month in protest over a Kosovo government decision to replace Serbian-issued car license plates with ones issued by Pristina.