Kosovo to put detained Serb under house arrest, possibly easing tensions

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A former Kosovo Serb policeman, whose arrest triggered violent protests by Kosovo’s Serb minority, will be released from custody and put under house arrest, a court spokesperson said on Wednesday, in a bid to ease tensions between Kosovo and Serbia.

Dejan Pantic was arrested on December 10 for assaulting a serving police officer, since when Serbs in northern Kosovo have exchanged fire with police and erected more than 10 roadblocks, blocking traffic between Serbia and Kosovo, demanding his release.

Serbs in northern Kosovo, which they believe to be still part of Serbia, resist any moves they see as anti-Serb.

Serbia put its army on its highest alert on Monday over rising tensions which spring from a row over car number plates.

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Pantic was one of many Serbs who left the police and other institutions after Pristina said it would enforce a law requiring Serbs to scrap Serbian-issued car license plates dating back to before the 1998-99 guerrilla uprising that led to Kosovo’s independence.

For over 20 years, Kosovo has been a source of tension between the West, which backed its independence, and Russia, which supports Serbia in its efforts to block Kosovo’s membership of international organizations, including the United Nations.

Pantic’s move to house arrest could help defuse tension, observers say, as his release has been the main demand of Kosovo Serbs.

Three border crossings between Serbia and Kosovo, including the biggest one for road freight, Merdare, were closed to traffic on Wednesday, disrupting journeys of Kosovars working elsewhere in Europe from returning home for the holidays.

NATO’s mission in Kosovo, KFOR, on Wednesday said it supported dialogue between all parties to defuse tensions.

Mirlinda Gashi, spokeswoman for the Pristina Basic Court told Reuters: “Kosovo’s special prosecutors have asked the court to put him (Dejan Pantic) under house arrest and this request was approved by the court.”

She did not say when he would leave the police station close to the border.

Kosovan Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla said on Tuesday Serbia was aiming to destabilize Kosovo. Serbia denies it is trying to destabilize its neighbor and says it just wants to protect its minority there.

The Kremlin on Wednesday also denied the Kosovan accusations but said it supported Belgrade.

"Serbia is a sovereign country and it is absolutely wrong to look for Russia’s destructive influence here," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Serbs in Serbia used a truck and tractors on Tuesday to create the latest roadblock, close to the Merdare crossing on Kosovo’s eastern border, prompting the government in Pristina to close down the crossing.

Around 50,000 Serbs living in northern Kosovo refuse to recognize the government in Pristina or the status of Kosovo as a separate country. They have the support of many Serbs in Serbia and its government.

Albanian-majority Kosovo declared independence in 2008 with the backing of the West, following a 1998-99 war in which NATO intervened to protect ethnic Albanian citizens.

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