By Fatos Bytyci and Matt Robinson

Pristina/Belgrade – Western powers overseeing Kosovo’s independence called on neighbouring Serbia on Tuesday to quit “interfering” in the country and withdraw clandestine security forces.

The call by the 25-member International Steering Group (ISG), including the United States and major EU powers, signalled rising impatience with Serbia’s role in a small slice of northern Kosovo populated by minority Serbs.

The country of 1.7 million people, 90 percent of them Albanians, was the last to emerge from socialist Yugoslavia when it seceded from Serbia in 2008 with the backing of the major Western powers.

Eighty-six countries have recognised the new state, but a small slice of the north populated by some 50,000-60,000 Serbs reject the secession and flashes of violence continue to challenge its stability.

The north functions largely as part of the Serbian state in a de facto ethnic partition of Kosovo that the West says is unacceptable.

Serbia says it will never recognise Kosovo as independent, but pressure has been growing on Belgrade to loosen its hold on the north if it is to make progress towards membership of the European Union.

Meeting in Vienna, the ISG said in a statement that it hoped to end its supervision of Kosovo by the end of the year, but that more should be done on rights and protections for the Serb minority.

It called on Serbia “to abide by its international commitments and refrain from interfering in Kosovo, including by withdrawing its police, security, and other state presences, and supporting efforts by international actors and the institutions of Kosovo to promote the rule of law”.

The Serbian government denies having any police in Kosovo, but Western diplomats, security officials and observers say Serbian security structures have been present in the north since NATO wrested control of Kosovo from Serbia in 1999.

“Serbia has no police or security structures anywhere in Kosovo,” a Serbian government spokesman said in response to the ISG statement.

Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999 after an 11-week NATO air war to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians by Serb forces fighting a two-year counter-insurgency war.

Serbia was denied official candidate status for membership of the EU in December, after months of sporadic violence in north Kosovo. It will have another chance when the EU meets against in March.

Tensions had been bubbling since July last year, when Kosovo’s government tried to take control of two border crossings between Serbia and the Serb-populated enclave in the north.

It was repelled by Serbs, who then threw up barricades. The EU’s police and justice mission, deployed in 2008, has since been unable to operate freely in the north, and NATO peacekeepers have clashed repeatedly with armed Serbs.

Pieter Feith, the Dutch diplomat tasked by the ISG with overseeing Kosovo’s progress, described a “climate of harassment, of intimidation and even of violence that continues to dominate the situation” in the north.

“The whole process of ending supervised independence and the future of Kosovo as a modern multiethnic democracy should not be held hostage by leaders in the north who have a different agenda,” he told a news conference after the Vienna meeting. – Reuters

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