Reuters, December 14, 2011
Russian aid stuck at Kosovo border in row with EU
Reuters BELGRADE, Dec 14 (Reuters) - A Russian aid convoy was stuck on the border between Serbia and Kosovo on Wednesday, caught up in a months-long dispute between the two countries over control of a northern slice of the former Serbian province.
Kosovo is 90 percent ethnic Albanian, and declared independence from Serbia in 2008. But Serbs dominate in a small slice of the north bordering Serbia and continue to function as part of the Serbian state, resisting efforts by the Kosovo government to extend its authority.
The row cost Serbia official candidate status for membership of the European Union last week.
The Russian convoy of some 25 trucks was carrying 300 tonnes of humanitarian aid for minority Serbs in Kosovo, Serbian media reported. But it was halted by EU customs officers late on Tuesday when it tried to enter Kosovo through a disputed border gate in the north.
The border gate is one of two crossings at the heart of the dispute, which started in July when Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci sent special police units to the northern border only to see them repelled by armed Serbs.
Serbian roadblocks are preventing the EU's police and justice mission in Kosovo, EULEX, from operating freely in the north, forcing the mission to use helicopters to supply a skeleton presence on the northern border.
EULEX said the aid convoy must either accept an EULEX escort, meaning Serbs will have to open the roads to the mission, or the aid must come through a different border crossing fully controlled by the Pristina government.
"(The) first option is to have an EULEX police escort, which is dependant on the roadblocks," said EULEX spokesman Blerim Krasniqi.
"The second option is for the convoy to go to the Merdare crossing point. It is standard EU practice to have a police escort for such a large convoy," he said.
Kosovo has been recognised by more than 80 countries, including the US and 22 of the EU's 27 members. But Russia has been a staunch supporter of Serbia and has refused to recognise the new state.
Russian ambassador to Belgrade Aleksandar Konuzin, who led the convoy, told Serbian media he refused to enter through the Merdare border gate, which he said is "controlled by the Pristina authorities, which Belgrade and Moscow do not recognise as legitimate bodies".
He also rejected the EULEX escort. However, with temperatures hovering above freezing it was unclear how long the convoy could wait.
The impasse in the north has flared into violence several times. Most recently some 30 German and Austrian soldiers, part of a contingent of NATO peacekeepers still patrolling Kosovo, were hurt by small arms fire and Molotov cocktails last month when they tried to remove a roadblock.