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Serbs quit Kosovo government after negotiator arrested

3 min

Belgrade (AFP)

Serb members of the Kosovan government on Tuesday decided to pull out of Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj's cabinet in protest at the arrest and expulsion of a senior Serbian official.

Tensions flared after Belgrade's chief negotiator for Kosovo Marko Djuric was arrested Monday on crossing into the former Serbian province that unilaterally proclaimed independence in 2008 and travelling to the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica for a meeting in defiance of a ban.

Unlike more than 110 states, including the United States and most of European Union member states, Serbia has refused to recognise Kosovo's independence and still considers it its southern province.

As a result, the ethnic Serbian members "will leave the government which will no longer have our support," Goran Rakic, leader of the main Serbian minority grouping, told reporters after meeting Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade.

Vucic had Monday slammed Djuric's treatment as an abduction just as both sides try to establish a dialogue.

Kosovo authorities responded that he had not obtained entry authorisation.

Serbian officials visiting Kosovo commonly seek Pristina's approval before visiting areas with an ethnic Serb population.

- 'Incomprehensible' decision -

Haradinaj's government depends on Serb group's support but he responded Tuesday by insisting his team "will not fall" while calling his Serb colleagues' decision "incomprehensible."

The incident in Mitrovica saw police disperse several dozen residents with tear gas while Djuric was hauled off to a police station in front of television cameras and reporters.

A number of people were hospitalised and hospital spokesman Milan Ivanovic on Tuesday told reporters that "32 people were hurt, eight seriously".

Kosovan minister of agriculture, Nenad Rikalo, suffered a fractured rib.

"What you saw yesterday shows what Pristina and a part of the international community think of dialogue -- I have nothing to add," said Djuric without indicating if Belgrade would now break off talks.

"The final decision belongs to Aleksandar Vucic," he stated.

After Monday's incident, Mitrovica residents erected a barricade across the road linking their town with Serbia, but the situation was calm Tuesday.

Nearly 20 years after the 1998-1999 war between Serb forces and Kosovo pro-independence ethnic Albanian guerillas, the city remains divided between ethnic Serbs, living north of the Ibar river, and ethnic Albanians, south of it.

International forces are still deployed in the town and throughout the breakaway territory.

Kosovo, which has a population of 1.8 million, 90 percent of whom are ethnic Albanians, is home to some 120,000 ethnic Serbs.

Kosovo Serbs also indicated Tuesday they intended to form on April 20 an association of Kosovo Serb municipalities "in line with the Brussels accord which Pristina and Belgrade have ratified".

Brussels has made the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina a condition of Serbian EU membership while Kosovo hopes for liberalisation of visa regulations for its citizens.

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