BELGRADE, Serbia -- Tensions soared Monday at Kosovo's border with Serbia as Kosovo deployed riot police while Serbs protested a move by Kosovo authorities to start removing Serbian license plates from cars entering the country.
Kosovo special police with armored vehicles were sent to the border as hundreds of Kosovo Serbs drove to the boundary in their cars and trucks, blocking roads leading to the the crossing points.
Serbian media reported said the Kosovo police fired tear gas at the protesters. The reports could not be independently verified.
Serbia doesn’t recognize its former province of Kosovo as a separate state and considers the mutual border only as an “administrative” and temporary boundary.
Thousands of people were killed and over 1 million were left homeless after a 1998-1999 bloody crackdown by Serbian troops against Kosovo Albanian separatists. The war ended only after NATO intervened. Kosovo then declared independence in 2008. It has been recognized by the United States and other Western nations, but not by Serbia and its allies Russia and China.
Thousands of NATO-led peacekeepers, including U.S. troops, are still deployed in Kosovo, trying to stave off lingering ethnic tensions between majority Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo Serbs.
Serbia’s populist President Aleksandar Vucic said Serbs in Kosovo “today suffered one of the worst days” after what he called “a brutal attack” by Kosovo police. He appealed for NATO troops to protect the Serbs.
“They think that our patience is endless,” he told reporters in Belgrade. “We will know how to protect our country, there is no doubt about it.”
Vucic indicated that the Serbian response would be “economic and political” and not by force.
Serbian police have for years been taking off registration plates from Kosovo-registered cars entering Serbia, and the latest move by Kosovo authorities appears to be a tit-for-tat action.
Kosovo officials said as of Monday, the license plates issued in Serbia will be replaced with temporary ones and that the additional police were deployed to implement the “reciprocity” action.
Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti said Serbia was the first to impose temporary license plates. He added that Kosovo’s move doesn't limit freedom of movement and isn't directed against Serbs.
“We didn’t ask for the temporary license plates, but they were imposed by the other party,” he said. “As long as our citizens must pay for the plates when they enter Serbia, they will be used on entry into Kosovo as well.”
European Commission spokesman Peter Stano urged both Kosovo and Serbia to “immediately, without any delay” exercise restraint and refrain from unilateral actions.
“Freedom of movement is one of the cornerstones of the European Union and as such we expect both Kosovo and Serbia to promote freedom of movement in the region,” he said in Brussels.
The two sides agreed in European Union-mediated talks in 2016 to allow free traffic. However, Kosovo officials said the deal has expired and only proper Kosovo symbols are now valid in the territory.
In Belgrade, Vucic called an emergency meeting on Tuesday of the state national security council as Serb officials in Kosovo demanded help from Belgrade.
Top Kosovo Serb official Goran Rakic described the latest move as “a direct threat” against Serbs living in Kosovo, saying they have informed EU mediator Miroslav Lajcak and other international officials about the new developments.
“This (protest) is a reaction by the people who are worried about their future, their children and their families,” said Rakic.
Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, and Jovana Gec in Belgrade contributed to this report.