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Kosovo Serbs protest Pristina's tariff

Kosovo Serbs take part in a protest in the northern town of Mitrovica on November 27, 2018, following Kosovo's move to slap Serbian imports with a 100 percent tariff

Mitrovica (Kosovo) (AFP)

Several thousand Kosovo Serbs protested in northern Kosovo on Tuesday against Pristina's massive customs tariff on Serbian goods, a retaliatory measure announced last week that has spiked tensions and curtailed trade between the neighbours.

The crowd gathered in the northern Serb-half of the divided city of Mitrovica with Serbian flags and signs saying "Help us" and "Stop the violence of Pristina".

"Everything is being done to drive us out," Slavka Djuric, a 65-year-old protester, told AFP.

The mayors of four majority-Serb municipalities in Kosovo -- North Mitrovica, Zvecan, Leposavic and Zubin Potok -- also resigned in protest at the tariff.

Kosovo imposed the 100 percent customs tax on Serbian goods on November 22, after accusing Belgrade of thwarting its bid to join the global police organisation Interpol.

Serbia refuses to recognise the independence of its former province and has sought to block it from international organisations, including the United Nations.

Yet Belgrade remains Kosovo's top trade partner in the Balkans, with Serbian imports -- mostly food products -- topping more than 400 million euros annually.

Belgrade has also maintained close links with the 120,000-strong Serb minority in Kosovo, where the majority of the population is ethnic Albanian.

Pristina has struggled to exercise authority over Serb enclaves, particularly in the Mitrovica region bordering Serbia.

Kosovo's customs spokesman Adriatik Stavileci said the tariff, which also applies to Bosnian goods, has shrunk trade with only two trucks from those countries entering Kosovo this past week after paying the fee.

The measure has yet to trigger any significant food shortages or price surges, though a hospital in northern Mitrovica, the Serb half, warned it was at risk of running out of oxygen and medicine.

Speaking to the protesters, hospital director Milan Ivanovic condemned Pristina's desire to "deprive Kosovo Serbs of bread and medicine".

The European Union and the United States have urged Pristina to rescind the tariff.

In a statement, the UN mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) also warned against the "escalating tensions" and said Kosovo's decision to impose the tariff was "a clear violation" of regional trade agreements.

But Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj has said it will remain until Serbia recognises Kosovo's independence -- something Belgrade has refused to do for a decade.

Another simmering point of controversy is Kosovo's aspiration to form its own army -- a goal President Hashim Thaci repeated on Facebook on Tuesday.

Kosovo's security is currently ensured by NATO-led forces (KFOR).

KFOR announced Tuesday it would "conduct some exercise in Northern Kosovo," stressing it was "a normal training activity."

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