Ethnic Serbs blockade NATO troops in Kosovo

MITROVICA/BELGRADE Fri Jul 29, 2011 1:06pm EDT

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MITROVICA/BELGRADE (Reuters) - Ethnic Serbs from Kosovo's north on Friday blocked NATO troops reaching their peacekeepers deployed at border posts with Serbia this week to halt violence provoked by a customs dispute with Belgrade.

Hundreds of ethnic Serb civilians were blocking two main roads in northern Kosovo leading to Serbia with trucks, trailers, logs and car tires stalling all traffic to and from the border, a Reuters photographer at the scene reported.

"We will not let NATO pass. We are sitting right now in front of their vehicles and if NATO wants to pass through, they will have to kill us all, every man, woman and child," said Filip, an ethnic Serb at a roadblock near the village of Rudare.

The dispute flared on Monday when Kosovo sent ethnic Albanian special police units to the border posts, which had been staffed mostly by ethnic Serbs, to enforce a ban on imports from Serbia. Pristina imposed the ban after Belgrade blocked Kosovo exports in a dispute over customs regulations.

NATO sent peacekeepers to quell a subsequent three days of violence in which one ethnic Albanian policeman was shot dead and hard-line Serbian nationalists set fire to one of the northern border crossings.

Talks between NATO commander, German General Erhard Buehler, and Serb negotiator Borislav Stefanovic continued on Friday afternoon with little sign of progress.

"I cannot persuade these people (Serbs) to clear the roads. Neither God nor the president can do it," Stefanovic told reporters as Serb civilians showed no intention of allowing NATO troops to proceed until Kosovo agrees not to station its police and customs officers at the sensitive border posts.

In Belgrade, Serbian President Boris Tadic made comments that indicated there were was no end in sight to the stand-off that has deeply worried the European Union and Washington.

"Dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina has no alternative. We want to continue the dialogue, but only after things return to where they were before the (Kosovo special police) intervention," Tadic told Belgrade's B-92 television on Friday.

NEITHER SIDE READY FOR COMPROMISE

Belgrade does not recognize the independence of its former province where 90 percent of the people are ethnic Albanians, while a sizeable Serb minority lives in the north, near Serbia.

A NATO spokesman in Pristina said the alliance wanted a non-violent solution but would act if necessary.

"We are trying to remove these roadblocks in a peaceful manner and today we will have more talks (with Serb negotiators). If no solution is found we will take measures to ensure freedom of movement," he said.

Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said he would not negotiate with Belgrade over the border issue as it was an internal matter.

"We will not negotiate with anyone, we will not make compromises over the security or territorial integrity of the Republic of Kosovo. We want good neighborly relations with Serbia, as with other countries in the region, but everybody is master in his house," he told a cabinet session.

Serbia lost control of Kosovo in 1999, when NATO waged a 78-day bombing campaign to end Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on ethnic Albanian rebels and ethnic cleansing.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008 but the 60,000 Serbs who live in northern Kosovo still consider Belgrade their capital. Another 40,000 Serbs live in enclaves in the rest of Kosovo.

(Additional reporting by Marko Djurica in Rudare, Kosovo; Editing by Adam Tanner and Elizabeth Fullerton)

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