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EU, US tell Kosovo to back down in Serb standoff or face ‘consequences’

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By Fatos Bytyci and Andrew Gray

PRISTINA/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The United States and the European Union told Kosovo on Wednesday to back down in a tense standoff with Serbs in the north of the country or face “consequences” from its longtime Western allies.

The warnings came as U.S. and EU envoys concluded visits to Kosovo and Serbia to calm tensions that flared into violence last week, wounding dozens of NATO peace-keeping soldiers and Serb protesters in northern Kosovo.

The violence erupted after Kosovo authorities installed ethnic Albanian mayors in municipal offices. The mayors were elected on a turnout of just 3.5% after Serbs who form a majority in the region boycotted local polls.

U.S. envoy to the Western Balkans Gabriel Escobar said that Kosovo must give greater autonomy to the Serb-majority municipalities if it wants to move closer to joining NATO and the EU.

“The actions taken or not taken could have some consequences that will affect parts of the relationship (between Kosovo and the United States), I don’t want to get there,” Escobar told Kosovo media on Tuesday before going to Belgrade.

He and the EU’s Miroslav Lajcak did not elaborate on what other consequences Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s ethnic Albanian-dominated government might face if it did not accede to their demands.

“I don’t think that these things are resolved with pressure and by mentioning consequences and even sanctions,” Kurti told reporters on Wednesday.

“We have challenges with EU and U.S. envoys but our bilateral relations with the EU and U.S. are excellent.”

Lajcak said on Monday that the envoys presented proposals to Kurti to de-escalate the situation in northern Kosovo, adding they had a “long, honest, difficult discussion”.

FRESH MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS

The United States and the EU have called on Kurti to withdraw the mayors from their offices and to pull out the special police units that helped install them form the northern municipalities.

They have also called for fresh local elections to be held in the north, with Serb participation, and for Kosovo to implement a 2013 agreement to set up an association of Serb municipalities to give that community more autonomy.

Kosovo’s President Vjosa Osmani told Reuters that the country could hold fresh elections in those municipalities if 20% of voters sign a petition asking for them.

A senior official in Kosovo told Reuters that Western nations – which have been staunch backers of the country’s independence since it formally broke with Serbia in 2008 – had warned Kurti that Kosovo could face multiple punitive measures.

Last week, Washington cancelled the country’s participation in a U.S.-led military exercise, Defender Europe.

EU foreign affairs spokesman Peter Stano said Lajacak would report back to foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who would then consult with EU member countries.

He said that “only then they will discuss potential next steps or measures depending on whether the parties undertake sincere and immediate steps to de-escalate or no”.

NATO has around 4,000 troops in Kosovo and ordered in an extra 700 as a response to the flare-up in violence.

(Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

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