Serbs started dismantling barricades in northern Kosovo on Thursday, hours after Kosovo reopened its main border crossing with Serbia, easing a surge in tensions that has alarmed world powers.
Serbia also ended a three-day-old state of alert for its troops, Tanjug news agency reported, as the sides showed signs of bowing to pressure from the European Union and the United States to step back from a mounting confrontation.
“Diplomacy prevailed in de-escalating tensions in north Kosovo. Violence can never be a solution,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted.
“Urgent progress in dialogue” was still needed to resolve outstanding issues between Belgrade and Pristina, he added.
Around 50,000 Serbs living in northern Kosovo refuse to recognise the government in Pristina or the status of Kosovo as a separate country. They have the support of many Serbs in Serbia and its government.
The latest peak in the long-running standoff came as Serbs in northern Kosovo started erecting roadblocks on Dec. 10 in protest at the arrest of a former Serb policeman.
They agreed to start dismantling the barricades after the former policeman was moved from detention to house arrest on Wednesday.
Protesters started removing trucks from a barricade in the northern village of Rudare on Thursday afternoon, Reuters drone footage showed. Serbian media said another two barricades had been removed near northern Kosovo’s Gazivode lake.
Kosovo police said they had reopened the Merdare crossing – the most important for road freight, linking the landlocked state with western European countries – after roadblocks came down on the Serbian side of the border.
They called on people from the diaspora to use the crossing, which was closed at midnight on Tuesday, to come home for the holidays.
But tensions remained high. Two burned-out trucks stood on a bridge close to the ethically divided town of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo. Kosovo police said they were investigating an arson attack.
Two other crossings with Serbia in Kosovo’s north have been closed since Dec. 10.
Albanian-majority Kosovo declared independence with the backing of the West following a 1998-99 war in which NATO intervened to protect ethnic Albanian citizens.
NATO’s peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, KFOR, said it welcomed the removal of the barricades.
“All parties should avoid any rhetoric or actions that can cause further escalation,” it added in a statement.
Kosovo has long been a source of tension between the West, which backed its independence, and Russia, which supports Serbia in its efforts to block Kosovo’s membership of global organisations including the United Nations.
The Kremlin on Wednesday dismissed accusations from Kosovo’s interior minister that Russia was influencing Serbia to destabilise Kosovo, saying that Serbia was defending the rights of ethnic Serbs.