Kosovo Serbs remove bridge barricade under EU-brokered thaw

PRISTINA Wed Jun 18, 2014 4:55am EDT

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PRISTINA (Reuters) - Serbs in the ethnically-divided Kosovo town of Mitrovica removed a barricade blocking the main bridge on Wednesday, the latest sign of a tentative thaw between Serbs and Albanians six years after Kosovo seceded from Serbia.

The barricade of concrete and gravel was erected in 2011 by local Serbs protesting against a police move to rein in a northern area of Kosovo, where tens of thousands of Serbs reject its independence from Belgrade.

Mitrovica, divided between Serbs and Albanians on either side of the Ibar River, is central to a bid by the European Union to integrate the north into Kosovo under a deal brokered by the bloc last year between Serbia and majority-Albanian Kosovo in exchange for opening membership talks with Belgrade.

Local media showed pictures of a bulldozer and local Serbs clearing the bridge overnight. "The barricade was removed and we see a few cars crossing," said a Kosovo police spokesman.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, almost a decade after NATO went to war to halt the massacre and expulsion of Albanians by Serbian forces waging a two-year counter-insurgency under late strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as sovereign, but has softened its stance and encouraged local Serbs to integrate as it seeks to draw closer to the EU. NATO still has some 5,000 peacekeepers on the ground in Kosovo.

(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Matt Robinson and Gareth Jones)

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