Kosovo Serbs Remove Symbolic Barricade in Flashpoint Town
A barricade that symbolized the angry refusal of ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo to merge with the rest of the country was removed on Wednesday after three years.
A bulldozer was brought in to shift the large pile of earth and concrete blocks that lay on the main bridge over the Ibar river in the northern flashpoint town of Mitrovica, an AFP correspondent reported.
The river separates the ethnic Albanians in the southern half of the town from ethnic Serbs in the north who largely refused to recognize Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008.
By Wednesday afternoon, traffic was passing smoothly between the two halves of the town.
The mayor of the town's Serb part, Goran Rakic, announced construction of a "peace park" near to where the barricade stood.
"We hold out a hand to our Albanian neighbors hoping that they will not interpret our gesture as a sign of weakness and that they will not abuse our trust.
"Instead of being on guard forever, we believe it is better that our children play together in the park," he said in a statement.
But not everyone welcomed the removal of the barricade, which was erected in 2011 in response to an abortive attempt by Kosovo authorities to take full control of the region.
"Now, we have no more protection," Dragoslav Vicentijevic, a pensioner, told AFP.
Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci hailed the move, telling local media that was "further proof of the successful implementation" of an EU-brokered deal to normalize ties between Serbia and Kosovo that was signed last year.
Many of the 40,000 ethnic Serbs of north Kosovo had strongly resisted the deal, refusing to recognize the government in Pristina and accusing Belgrade of betrayal.
But left with few options, they grudgingly took part in Kosovo parliamentary elections for the first time earlier this month.
Serbia still does not recognize Kosovo's independence but implicitly agreed to accept the Pristina government's authority over the territory in return for the opening of EU accession talks.
There are a total of 120,000 ethnic Serbs living throughout Kosovo, a country of 1.6 million, but most are scattered in small communities away from the border.
Kosovo's independence has been recognized by more than 100 countries, including the United States and most of the European Union's 28 member states.