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NATO warns Kosovo Serbs to remove road barricades

A boy walks by a barricade in front of the main bridge, one of two bridges between the southern, ethnic Albanian-dominated and the northern, Serb-dominated part of Kosovska Mitrovica, Kosovo, Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011. Roadblocks and disputed border crossings remain throughout the Serb-run north, posing a challenge to the 3,000-strong EU mission and the 5,500 NATO-led peacekeepers who are in charge of security. Both the EU and NATO have called for the roadblock to be removed to allow freedom of movement. A boy walks by a barricade in front of the main bridge, one of two bridges between the southern, ethnic Albanian-dominated and the northern, Serb-dominated part of Kosovska Mitrovica, Kosovo, Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011. Roadblocks and disputed border crossings remain throughout the Serb-run north, posing a challenge to the 3,000-strong EU mission and the 5,500 NATO-led peacekeepers who are in charge of security. Both the EU and NATO have called for the roadblock to be removed to allow freedom of movement. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
By Zvezdan Djukanovic
Associated Press / October 18, 2011

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MITROVICA, Kosovo—The commander of NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo said Tuesday he is disappointed by the Serb refusal to remove roadblocks in the north of the country and warned of action if the blockade is not lifted soon.

Serbs defied a Tuesday deadline to remove the barriers and gathered by the hundreds to protect them from removal by the peacekeeping troops. Two NATO troop supply convoys were stopped by the Serbs manning the barricades on Tuesday.

For nearly three months, Kosovo Serbs have been blocking main roads to stop Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership from extending their control over the Serb-run territory. Serbs reject Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia.

The 5,500-strong peacekeeping force, known as KFOR, had requested that the 16 barriers of rocks, mud and logs be taken down by early Tuesday.

"I am disappointed with this outcome," NATO's top commander in Kosovo, Maj. Gen. Erhard Drews, said in a statement. "The north did not comply with the request to remove the roadblocks."

Drews said he will wait for the outcome of a meeting of Kosovo Serb leaders who will discuss on Wednesday whether to lift the blockade for the passage of the peacekeepers.

"KFOR is ready and resolved to take action on behalf of freedom of movement, if the municipality meeting on Wednesday does not have satisfactory results," Drews said. "Our focus is on enabling civilians to lead normal lives."

On Tuesday, hundreds of Serbs gathered at the barriers to protect them from forced removal by the peacekeepers who say they want to establish freedom of movement in the region and reopen supply routes for their troops.

Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci urged the international peacekeepers to apply the rule of law and ensure freedom of movement on "all territories of Kosovo."

"We want to build a better Kosovo, for all citizens of Kosovo, no matter what nationality they are," Thaci told AP Television News in Kosovo's capital, Pristina. "These actions are coordinated between the international community and the government of Kosovo."

In July, ethnic Albanian authorities deployed their security forces to two border checkpoints in northern Kosovo to enforce a trade ban with Serbia. Serbs reacted by blocking roads and triggering clashes with Kosovo police that left one police officer dead.

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Associated Press writers Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.

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