Kosovo accuses Serbia of sabotage by backing Serbs who quit jobs
PRISTINA (Reuters) -Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti accused Belgrade of trying to destabilise Kosovo by supporting Serbs who work as police officers and in the public sector quitting over Pristina's order to use Kosovo vehicle licence plates not those issued by Serbia.
The long-running licence plate dispute has stoked tensions between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo, which gained independence in 2008 and is home to a Serb minority in the north that is backed by Belgrade.
Kosovo's government has said it will start issuing fines this month to Serb drivers using pre-independence plates, and will confiscate vehicles that have not had their registration numbers changed by April 21, 2023.
So far 578 police officers have resigned over the dispute, the interior ministry said, with Kosovo having to draft in officers from other regions to replace them.
Their resignations are part of a wider Serb movement to withdraw from state institutions including courts, police, parliament and government over replacing the licence plates.
Both leaders of the ruling party in Serbia including President Aleksandar Vucic and many opposition political leaders in Serbia have expressed support for the actions of the Serbs in the north of Kosovo.
“In the past days we have seen an increase in the attempts of Serbia and the president of our northern neighbour to destabilise the situation in our country,” Kurti told a news conference.
"Clearly Serbia is interested in sabotaging the dialogue and any possible deal," he said.
Kosovo and Serbia in 2013 committed to an EU-sponsored dialogue to resolve all remaining issues between them, but little progress has been made since then.
A foreign policy spokesman for the European Commission, Peter Stano urged both Serbia and Kosovo on Monday to prevent any escalation of the tensions.
"Over the last few days we have seen a very, very dangerous escalation," Stano said. "And this has consequences not only for Serbia and Kosovo ... but also for the entire region."
Kosovo Serbs will not be left without the support of Belgrade, "no matter what happens", Vucic wrote on Instagram on Monday.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said he had spoken to Vucic and Kurti about the situation.
"I urged both to refrain from any unilateral action that can trigger escalation. Dialogue is the only way forward," the secretary-general said on Twitter.
Meanwhile Russia's foreign ministry on Monday accused the West of "pushing the situation towards a direct conflict".
(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Additional reporting by John Chalmers in Brussels and Sabine Siebold in Berlin; Editing by Ivana Sekularac and Alison Williams)