Serbian Leader Accuses Kosovo of ‘Wanting War’ After Train Is Turned Back

A Serbian train bearing signs reading “Kosovo is Serbian” has been halted at the border with Kosovo, fueling a crisis in the Balkans and escalating a potential contest between Russia and the West over dominance in the region.

Serbia accused Kosovo’s leaders on Sunday of “wanting war” and warned that it would defend “every inch” of its territory, a day after the train, decorated in Serbian Christian Orthodox symbols and flags, was prevented from entering the neighboring nation.

Kosovo, supported by much of the West, declared independence from Serbia in 2008. But Serbia and its Slavic Orthodox ally, Russia, do not recognize the split.

Serbia has sought to maintain influence in Kosovo’s north, where most of the country’s Serbian minority lives. Troops led by NATO have controlled Kosovo’s borders since a three-month air war in 1999 to stop a bloody Serbian crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists.

President Tomislav Nikolic of Serbia issued the latest warning after the passenger train, painted in the colors of the red, blue and white Serbian flag, was prevented from crossing into Kosovo, where Mr. Nikolic government contends that ethnic Serbs are under threat from Kosovo Albanians.

“Yesterday, we were on the verge of clashes,” Mr. Nikolic said after a meeting of the country’s top security body following the train’s overnight return to Belgrade. “We are a country which has to protect its people and its territory.”

Serbia is seeking European Union membership but has lately been sliding toward the Kremlin, which wants to increase its influence in the Balkans. Serbia has strained relations with most of its neighbors, a situation that many analysts attribute to Russian influence.

Prime Minister Isa Mustafa of Kosovo said he had contacted the United States and the European Union to express his country’s concerns.

“The time of provocation, conflicts and wars should belong to the past,” Mr. Mustafa said, adding that such moves were “unacceptable, unnecessary actions that do not contribute to the normalization of the relations between our two countries.”

Mr. Nikolic, who is staunchly pro-Russian, said the European Union and the West had never been on Serbia’s side or come to its aid.

“Why were the so-called international community and the Albanians so upset about one train?” Mr. Nikolic asked. “Maybe because it had ‘Kosovo is Serbian’ written on it, and because it had pictures of our icons inside.”

He also called for Serbia to halt its European Union membership negotiations in Brussels, including a central part that calls for normalizing relations between Serbia and Kosovo.

“My suggestion now is only to talk in Brussels when this train is allowed to pass,” he said. “If there is no freedom of movement, what kind of Western civilization are we talking about then?”

Mr. Nikolic also criticized the departing Obama administration and the United States’ support for Kosovo’s independence — comments that reflected the general feeling here that President-elect Donald J. Trump will be more favorable toward Russia and Serbia.

Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo have soared since the detention in France this month of Ramush Haradinaj, a former Kosovo prime minister, on an arrest warrant from Serbia.

Kosovo has called the warrant illegitimate and urged France to ignore it, while Serbia is seeking Mr. Haradinaj’s quick extradition to face charges of war crimes.

The train, adorned with the words “Kosovo is Serbian” in 20 languages, in Belgrade, Serbia, on Saturday. Credit Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press

Kosovo Prime Minister Urges Calm Over Conflict with Serbia

Kosovo Prime Minister Isa Mustafa urged for calm in relations with Serbia following a war of words that erupted between the two countries over the weekend.

In an exclusive interview with VOA's Albanian Service, Mustafa was responding to comments by Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic who said his country “is ready to send troops to Kosovo to protect Serbian nationals, if necessary,” after a train painted with the words “Kosovo is Serbia” was stopped Saturday from entering Kosovo.

Mustafa called Nikolic's statement “irresponsible” and a threat “not only to Kosovo but also to the Balkans.”

“We do not want to respond to that threat with the same language,” said Mustafa. “We are interested in living in good neighborly relations with Serbia.”

U.S.ambassador calls for 'restraint'

The United States ambassador in Pristina, Greg Delawie, said on Twitter that he was concerned about the train issue. Delawie called “for restraint from all parties,” adding that what was needed was “normalization not confrontation” between Serbia and Kosovo.

Nikolic said the two countries were on the verge of a conflict. He said Kosovo had shown it wanted war after it deployed special forces to prevent the train painted with Serbia's national colors from entering its territory.

Mustafa told journalists the train “sent a message of occupation.”

Train returned to Belgrade

According to reports, Serbian officials accused Kosovo authorities of attempting to mine the railroad with bombs.

Kosovo officials strongly denounced the accusations, adding they found no explosives on the railway.

Saturday's ride was the first from Belgrade, the Serbian capital, to the northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica since the 1998 war. Reports say the train later returned to Belgrade.

About 120,000 of Kosovo's 1.8 million inhabitants are ethnic Serbs.

Both countries seek EU membership

Both countries are seeking European Union membership to boost their struggling economies.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008, a decade after it split from Serbia. The country has been recognized by the United States and more than 110 countries, but not Serbia.

The split triggered a bloody yearlong conflict between Serbian and Albanian forces. Many of the 40,000 ethnic Serbs living in northern Kosovo have refused to recognize the ethnic Albanian majority’s 2008 secession from Serbia.

Serbian nationalist train causes tension as it reaches Kosovo border

An elaborately decorated Serbian nationalist train took off Saturday from Belgrade aiming for northern Kosovo but halted at the border in a stunt that triggered a dramatic escalation of tensions between the former wartime foes.

Kosovo officials had protested earlier that the train was in violation of their country's sovereignty and promised not to let it in.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic ordered the train stopped at the Serbian town of Raska as it approached the border with Serbia's former province, claiming that Kosovo's ethnic Albanians had tried to mine the railway.

Kosovo police strongly denounced such accusations but said they had had checked the railway and found no explosives.

Kosovo Prime Minister Isa Mustafa said he had contacted the United States and the European Union to express his country's concerns.

"I believe that turning back the train was the appropriate action and its entry into the independent and sovereign Republic of Kosovo would not be allowed," he said at a Saturday evening news conference.

The Russian-made train was painted with Serb flags, religious Christian Orthodox scenes, monasteries and medieval towns and inscribed with "Kosovo is Serbian" in 20 world languages. Hostesses on it wore the colors of the Serbian national flag.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but Serbia does not recognize the split and has sought to maintain influence in Kosovo's north, where most of the country's Serb minority is located.

At an urgently called news conference in Belgrade on Saturday, Vucic accused the Kosovo government in Pristina of plans to arrest the train's driver and passengers.

"This was an ambition to provoke a conflict, to start a wider conflict in this territory that we consider as ours," Vucic said. "It was my decision to stop the train in Raska to preserve the freedom and lives of our people, to prevent a wider conflict and show that we want peace."

He warned ethnic Albanians in Kosovo not to attack Kosovo's Serb minority "because Serbia will not allow those attacks."

"We sent a train, not a tank," Vucic said.

NATO-led troops are controlling Kosovo's borders following an intervention in 1999 to stop a bloody Serbian crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo.

Saturday's promotional ride was the first from Belgrade, the Serbian capital, to the northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica since the 1998-99 war. The train later turned back toward Belgrade.

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci said Saturday on his Facebook page that Kosovo respects the freedom of movement of people and goods but a train covered in nationalist banners that violate Kosovo's constitution and laws "is completely unacceptable."

He also noted the train had some passengers and Serb officials who did not have permission to enter Kosovo.

"Anything that is illegal and threatens Kosovo's state sovereignty, must be prevented. This train is the latest provocation and authorities in Kosovo must use all legal means to stop this train immediately," he wrote.

Earlier, as the train left Belgrade, Marko Djuric, who heads Serbian government's office for Kosovo, described the rail link as important for northern Kosovo.

"This is like a mobile exhibition presenting our cultural heritage," he said.

The clash of viewpoints came amid already heightened tensions between Serbia and Kosovo following the recent detention in France of Ramush Haradinaj, a former Kosovo prime minister, on an arrest warrant from Serbia.

Kosovo has called the warrant not legitimate and urged France to ignore it.

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