As Tensions Mount over Management of Crossing Points in Northern Kosovo, United Nations Official Tells Security Council 'We Are Very Concerned' at Possible Escalation
6616th Meeting (Night)
The Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations appealed this evening to authorities in Serbia and Kosovo to maintain calm and avoid exacerbating tensions over a plan to hand over authority on boundary crossing points to the European Union mission with the presence of Kosovo customs officials.
“We are very concerned that announced plans could lead to a hardening of positions and an outbreak of violence,” Edmond Mulet told the 15-member body at a meeting urgently requested by Serbia and the Russian Federation. Averting a new crisis, above all, “rests with the sides to demonstrate their commitment to reconciliation, dialogue and peace” rather than resort to force.
“We are opposed to unilateral action, on the one hand and overheated rhetoric on the other,” he said at the meeting, which was followed by a private one on the matter that included representatives of both sides.
Mr. Mulet explained that tensions had persisted in northern Kosovo since the first attempt, on 25 July, by Kosovo authorities to install customs officials at the Gates 1 and 30 between northern Kosovo, which is dominated by ethnic Serbs, and Serbia proper.
At a 30 August Council meeting, the Secretary-General’s Acting Special Representative for Kosovo, Farid Zarif, warned that violence that accompanied that attempt was a stark reminder of the ongoing threats to the region’s security, emphasizing that both sides must refrain from actions leading to an escalation of tensions and to demonstrate confidence in their European Union-mediated dialogue. (See Press Release SC/10371)
Since that time, Mr. Mulet said, the Kosovo multinational security force (KFOR) had negotiated an agreement to manage the gates in question until 15 September. Meanwhile, it was hoped that the issue would be settled at the Belgrade-Pristina talks mediated by the European Union earlier this month. Those talks centred on the customs stamps, one of the underlying causes of the tension. Agreement was reached on the issue, but the matter of customs checks at the two gates was not discussed.
He explained that before the first incident, the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) had managed the gates in question, recording transactions and making random checks. Since no agreement had been reached with Belgrade on the issue, Pristina authorities arranged a plan with EULEX in which the mission would resume its duties at the gates, with a Kosovo customs officer at each gate. Efforts would be made to ensure that an ethnic Serb and an ethnic Albanian officer were also present. No customs fees would be paid at the gates, but would be collected elsewhere.
Expecting that the trade embargo imposed by Pristina would be lifted once the arrangement was in place, EULEX saw the plan as improving the rule of law in the north, he said. The mission stressed that there would be mixed teams at the gates and the operational work would be done by EULEX. Authorities in Pristina said it was part of their overall vision for reform of the government to ensure that it was in the service of all citizens regardless of ethnicity.
Kosovo Serbs in the north, however, opposed the plan and had organized protests, he said. An atmosphere of fear and anxiety prevailed, and roadblocks created by ethnic Serbs had been re-established near the gates. Serbia criticized KFOR and EULEX for their complicity with the plan, saying they were violating the neutrality demanded of them by resolution 1244 (1999), which created the United States administration of Kosovo.
“ Belgrade has stood firm against Pristina’s plan,” he told the Council, further reporting that Serbian President Boris Tadić had said that Serbia would do everything it could not to allow the turnover of gate management to occur. He warned of negative consequences of the turnover, adding that Kosovo authorities would be responsible.
Indeed, in the letter requesting today’s meeting (document S/2011/574), Serbia’s representative warned that if the “unsanctioned, unilateral action”, went ahead, peace and security in the region would be threatened and the continuation of dialogue between Serbia and Pristina would become impossible, as would the implementation of what had already been agreed. “There must be no repetition of the 25 July inaction, when the international community failed to prevent Pristina’s unauthorized incursion into North Kosovo,” the Foreign Minister said, urging the United Nations to take “all necessary measures” to stop it.
As of 9 p.m. local time this evening, Mr. Mulet reported, Gate 1 was closed because of a large gathering of Serbs, and Gate 31 was sealed off by a truck. He noted that international authorities in Kosovo had conveyed messages to both sides urging calm and restraint and that the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) would continue to work closely with the parties to avert a new crisis.
The meeting began at 6:37 p.m. and ended at 6:55 p.m., at which time Council members were invited to continue discussion on the subject in a private meeting.