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A dispute over license plates between the Balkan nations of Kosovo and Serbia, from which Kosovo seceded 14 years ago, sparked protests and gunfire on Sunday night, sparking fears that violence could escalate as the western country rages on in Ukraine. are focused on.

Amidst protesters forming barricades, unidentified gunmen opened fire on Kosovo police officers on the troubled northern border with Serbia on the eve of a new law that would allow ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo to switch from Serbian license plates to Kosovar over the next two months. was required to do. Many Serbs in Kosovo still use Serbian issued plates, which the government considers illegal.

Kosovo’s government also said that from Monday all Serbian ID and passport holders would have to obtain an additional document to enter Kosovo, similar to what Kosovar would do to enter Serbia.

No one was injured by gunfire, but in response to the violence, Kosovo police closed two northern border crossings.

“The next hours, days and weeks may be challenging and problematic,” Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti said in a video released on his social media channels.

Similar protests over license plates flared up a year ago, but observers say tensions are higher this time due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has attracted the attention of Kosovo’s most important ally, the United States, as well as the European Union. focuses.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, nine years after a 78-day NATO bombing campaign forced Serb forces out of the former province. Serbia – as well as its major allies, Russia and China – still refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence, and insists on protecting its ethnic Serb relatives, who make up about 5 percent of Kosovo’s population of 1.8 million people. make.

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Less than half of Kosovo’s Serb population lives in the four northern municipalities bordering Serbia and many have been reluctant to recognize the authorities in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, as if they were still part of Serbia.

The European Union has mediated negotiations between the two governments since 2011 and gradually, the police, courts and municipalities have come under Pristina’s control. But, encouraged by the political leadership in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, Serbian nationalists resisted each additional attempt at unification.

“We will pray for peace and want peace, but there will be no surrender and Serbia will win,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic told a news conference on Sunday. “If they dare to persecute and abuse and kill Serbs, Serbia will win,” he added later, “we have never been in a more difficult, complicated situation than we are today.”

Mr. Vucic, who convened a high-level meeting of security and military officials on Sunday night, said the Kosovar government was trying to bring the unrest to the same light as President Vladimir V. Putin by blaming Serbia’s close ties with Russia. , a fellow Slavic and Orthodox Christian nation.

Kosovo’s leader, Mr Vucic, said during Sunday’s news conference, was trying to take advantage of the global mood by projecting that “the older Putin gave orders to the younger Putin, so the new Zelensky as Albin Kurti is a savior.” and the fight against the great Serbian hegemony.

Vladimir Jukanovic, a Serbian parliament member from Mr Vucic’s ruling party, also linked the border dispute to the war in Ukraine, tweeting, “I think Serbia will be forced to start condemning the Balkans,” an ominous reference. Russia’s justification for invading Ukraine.

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Serbia, a candidate to join the European Union, maintains close ties with Moscow and has not joined Western sanctions on Russia, although it voted in favor of a UN resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. . Belgrade and Moscow share animosity for the NATO military alliance due to the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia, when Mr Vucic was the spokesman for Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

With a force of about 3,700 troops, NATO still maintains a peacekeeping presence in Kosovo. In a news release, NATO said its forces on the ground were “ready to intervene if stability is at risk.”

Following a meeting with the US ambassador on Sunday night, Kosovo’s government announced that it would delay the implementation of both the license plate and identification decision by a month.

Russia quickly weighed in on Sunday, calling license plate and identification laws “another step to exclude the Serbian population from Kosovo”, Russia’s news agency TASS reported.

“We support Pristina and the United States and the European Union to stop provocations and follow the rights of Serbs in Kosovo,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.

Kosovo’s northern border with Serbia has been a hotbed of violence in the past. In 2011, when Kosovo police tried to take full control of the area, one Kosovo police officer was killed and 25 others were injured.