Kosovo views Serbian rail link as 'provocation,' blocks train

Authorities in Pristina view Serbia's decision to open a railway link to northern Kosovo as a violation of the disputed territory's sovereignty.

Darko Vojinovic/AP
A railroad worker stands by the first train decorated with letters that read 'Kosovo is Serbian' written in 20 languages departing from Belgrade, Serbia to Mitrovica, Kosovo on Saturday.

Kosovo blocked a Serbian train at its border just a day after decrying a move to link the two countries by rail train, saying the Serbian plan is meant to provoke those in the disputed Kosovo territory and interferes with its sovereignty.

The Serbian government announced the project Friday, which would run a train between Belgrade and northern Mitrovica in Kosovo, where most of the ethnic Serb minority lives. Officials reportedly said that a train from Russia will run between the two points in about a month for half the cost of a bus ticket, marking the first time one has done so since the region's 1998-99 war.

But strained relations between the two parties have made Kosovo wary of Serbia’s plan. A bombing by NATO in 1999 curtailed a Serbian crackdown on Kosovo separatists, and Kosovo later declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, but the territory has not received recognition from Serbia. While the European Union has sought to normalize relations between the two nations through talks as a prerequisite for membership to the EU, the detention last week of Ramush Haradinaj, a former Kosovo prime minister, on a Serbian arrest warrant alleging he committed war crimes, has place an additional strain on the relationship.

"This is a provocation against Kosovo, which shows that Serbia has openly come out with aggressive politics threatening Kosovo's territorial integrity and sovereignty and its national security," Kosovo State Minister Edita Tahiri said.

On Saturday, a train bearing the words  "Kosovo is Serbian" painted in 20 languages and the colors of the Serbian flag was blocked at the border with Kosovo, further fueling tension in the war-torn region.

"Yesterday, we were on the verge of clashes," Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said in a statement Sunday. "Why were the so-called international community and the Albanians so upset about one train? Maybe because it had 'Kosovo is Serbian' written on it, and because it had pictures of our icons inside."

"My suggestion now is only to talk in Brussels when this train is allowed to pass.... If there is no freedom of movement, what kind of Western civilization are we talking about then?" he added.

The conflict between the two nations represents a larger divide between the West and Eastern Europe; while much of the West has backed Kosovo and recognized its independence, Russia remains closely linked to Serbia. Some in the region have wondered if the incoming Trump administration, which has received criticism for the president-elect’s cozy relationship with Russia, will act in more favorable ways toward Serbia than has the Obama administration.

Looking ahead, Kosovo remains determined to keep Serbia’s train out of its borders, and has contacted the United States and EU with concerns about Serbia’s actions.

"The time of provocation, conflicts and wars should belong to the past," Kosovo Prime Minister Isa Mustafa said, noting that the moves "are unacceptable, unnecessary actions that do not contribute to the normalization of the relations between our two countries."

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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