US official urges Kosovo, Serbia to deescalate tensions or jeopardize EU aspirations

A US envoy for the Balkans urged Kosovo and Serbia on Wednesday to deescalate simmering ethnic tensions in the former Serbian province, or both states could jeopardize their proclaimed goal of one day joining the European Union.

Gabriel Escobar and EU mediator Miroslav Lajcak have been holding talks with the Serbian and Kosovo leaders on how to resume negotiations between the two former wartime foes. Tensions flared anew late last month in Kosovo, including violent clashes between Kosovo police and NATO-led peacekeepers on one side and local Serbs on the other, leaving dozens injured on both sides.

“The European Union, with full support of the United States, has made it very clear that this is a European process. The dialogue and mediation is a European process,” Escobar told reporters in Belgrade. “Turning their back in the process will be turning their back on Europe, with all the consequences that it entails in the failure of closer integration and a closer relationship with Europe. That by itself is a very serious consequence.”

The tensions escalated when Kosovo police seized local municipality buildings in northern Kosovo, where Serbs represent a majority, to install ethnic Albanian mayors who were elected in a local election in April after Serbs overwhelmingly boycotted the vote.

“We have to deescalate the situation immediately, so that means that we are hoping that mayors not try to use those buildings, that the Kosovo police be withdrawn from around the buildings but we also want to make sure that (Serb) protesters leave the area as well,” Escobar said.

He said that the international mediators are also proposing new local elections be held with the “unconditional” participation of the Serbs.

Serbia and its former province Kosovo have been at odds for decades, with Belgrade refusing to recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence. The latest violence near their shared border has stirred fear of a renewal of a 1998-99 conflict in Kosovo that claimed more than 10,000 lives, mostly ethnic Albanians.

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