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Published: Thursday June 19, 2014 MYT 12:25:14 AM
Updated: Thursday June 19, 2014 MYT 12:26:26 AM

Kosovo Serbs remove barrier in divided town, erect new one

MITROVICA Kosovo (Reuters) - Serbs in the ethnically divided Kosovo town of Mitrovica removed a barricade on its main bridge on Wednesday in what seemed the latest hint of a tentative thaw with their Albanian neighbours, only to block it again with concrete pots and earth.

The outcome may well further antagonise Kosovo's government, which is impatient to rein in a northern pocket populated by Serbs who reject the young country's 2008 secession from Serbia.

Mitrovica, split between Serbs and Albanians on either side of the Ibar River, is central to a bid by the European Union to integrate the north into Kosovo under a deal brokered by the bloc last year between Serbia and majority-Albanian Kosovo in exchange for opening EU membership talks with Belgrade.

Overnight, local Serbs used a digger to remove a large pile of concrete and gravel that hardliners dumped on the bridge in 2011 in protest at a police move to take control of the region.

Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci hailed the step as proof of the deal's implementation, and cars began crossing the bridge. But hours later, local Serbs began spreading earth across the bridge and arranging small trees in concrete pots to again block passage.

Italian carabinieri, among thousands of foreign soldiers and police still stationed in Kosovo since a 1998-99 war between Serbian forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas, looked on but did not intervene. The Serb mayor of the northern half of Mitrovica described the tree display as a "park for peace", undertaken in coordination with Serbian authorities in Belgrade.

"In a symbolic sense, the removal of the barricade and building of the park for peace is a message to the whole world that Serbs in this region refuse to live in fear, are afraid of no one, as they wish no one harm," Goran Rakic said, according to the Serbian state news agency, Tanjug.

But his Albanian counterpart in the south, Agim Bahtiri, told Reuters: "I am in contact with the Serb mayor and we are hoping this blockage will be cleared soon."

Passage between the two sides of Mitrovica is still possible across a bridge to the east.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, almost a decade after NATO went to war to halt the massacre and expulsion of Albanians by Serbian forces waging a two-year counter-insurgency under late strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

Serbia does not recognise Kosovo as sovereign, but has softened its stance and encouraged local Serbs to integrate within Kosovo it seeks to draw closer to the EU. NATO still has some 5,000 peacekeepers on the ground in Kosovo.

(Editing by Matt Robinson)

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