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article imageTensions flare after Kosovo's massive tariff on Serbia

By Tanja VUJISIC with Ismet HAJDARI in Pristina and Katarina SUBASIC in Belgrade (AFP)     Nov 22, 2018 in World

Kosovo's move to slap Serbian imports with a 100 percent tariff triggered a new surge of tensions between the former war foes on Thursday, with Pristina ignoring European Union calls to reverse the decision.

Kosovo's Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj insisted the massive tariff would remain "until Serbia recognises Kosovo as an independent and sovereign state".

That is a red line for Belgrade, which has refused for a decade to recognise the independence of its former southern province, which broke away in a bloody guerilla war.

Kosovo announced the tariff on both Serbian and Bosnian goods -- though excluding international brands -- on Wednesday after accusing Belgrade of sabotaging its bid to join Interpol, the international police organisation.

Serbia has long fought to thwart Kosovo, which is home to an ethnic Albanian majority, from joining international organisations like the United Nations.

On Thursday there was anxiety in Kosovo's north that the tariff would trigger a price surge.

"Today I took a few bottles of oil, flour and sugar, just to have them because I do not know how long this will last," said Milanka, a pensioner living in the city of Mitrovica, which is divided by its ethnic Albanian and ethnic Serb populations.

"This is not good, they are playing with people," she added.

Serbia accounts for more than half of the region's exports to Kosovo.

But Belgrade has warned that the tariff amounts to a de facto trade ban.

It has already reduced the trade flow, said Kosovo's customs spokesman Adriatik Stavileci, adding that 20 trucks carrying Serbian and Bosnian goods had turned around at the border.

Belgrade newspapers were also absent on the stands in Mitrovica.

"We cannot bear this 100 percent tax increase, so there are no newspapers today," explained Zvezdan Mihajlovic, who works for a firm that delivers papers to the city.

- 'Playing with fire' -

In Belgrade, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said the government had information Kosovo security forces were being mobilised towards the north, home to a Serb minority.

Vucic questioned whether Pristina may try "to prevent any movement of goods to Kosovo's Serb communities," reported regional broadcaster N1.

But a northern Kosovo police commander, Besim Hoti, denied the allegations.

"There are no police enforcements in the north, nor are the police and customs personnel strengthened at the crossings with Serbia. The situation is normal," Hoti told AFP.

The tariff is the latest twist in a long-running diplomatic feud between the neighbours.

They have been in EU-led talks to normalise their relations for several years, but tit-for-tat measures have stalled progress and periodically raised tensions.

Vucic has said Serbia would not resume its dialogue with Kosovo until the measure is dropped, while EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has called on Kosovo to "immediately revoke" the tariff.

Florian Bieber, a professor of Southeast European studies at the University of Graz in Austria, said the move appeared to be one of the neighbours' "episodical incidents of escalation" that could settle down soon.

"But I think with any of them, there's always a risk it could get out of control," he told AFP. "It's playing with fire."

Kosovo broke away from Serbia in a bloody guerilla war that killed more than 13,000 people in 1998-99, mostly ethnic Albanians.

The conflict was halted after a NATO bombing campaign forced Serb troops to withdraw from Kosovo.

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