PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — NATO forces in Kosovo withdrew from a barricade put up by hundreds of Serbs on Friday to avoid confrontation with Serb extremists blocking the peacekeepers from reaching a base in the Serb-run north, NATO's commander in Kosovo said.
"I had the option to enforce and open up the roadblock," Maj. Gen. Erhard Buehler told reporters minutes after he ordered his troops to pull out. "I decided not to do it because in the meantime so many criminals and extremists and armed people are here. It would be a nightmare."
The NATO spokesman in Kosovo, Capt. Hans Wichter said the decision by the top NATO commander, Maj. Gen. Erhard Buehler, was made "to avoid bloodshed" in the area, which has been rocked by violent incidents since Kosovo police moved to assert authority over minority Serbs that reject Pristina's rule.
The protesters applauded and cheered as U.S. and Slovenian peacekeepers turned around on a main road linking Kosovo with Serbia and crossed the Ibar river into the southern part of the areas dominated by ethnic Albanians.
Serbs blocked roads on Friday and have attacked border posts, firing at NATO peacekeepers in an attempt to keep control over Kosovo's north, which despite a NATO and EU presence remains under Serbia's realm.
Serbia's Kosovo negotiator Borislav Stefanovic, who is discussing the current situation with NATO, praised the decision to withdraw and said that an agreement was also in sight to resolve control over two crossing points between Kosovo and Serbia.
The development is likely to irritate authorities in Pristina seeking to increase authority in the Serb-run north.
NATO deployed reinforcements after Kosovo sent special police units to take control of two crossing points with Serbia in the Serb-run area, which doesn't recognize Kosovo's government. One Kosovo policeman died during the operation.
When the special police units withdrew and declared the operation over, a crowd of Serbs attacked one of the two border crossings and burned it.
NATO then took command of the crossings and declared the area a military zone. U.S. and French peacekeepers are still in control of the crossing points.
The military alliance has halved the number of its troops from 10,000 to over 5,000 since last year. But, the recent violence could delay announced plans for further reduction by the end of 2001.
The attack was the second of its kind since Kosovo's secession from Serbia in 2008. Immediately after the declaration of independence, Serbs attacked the border crossings and removed all signs identifying Kosovo as an independent state.
Since then, the two crossing points had been manned by Serb members of Kosovo's police and supervised by police from the European Union. However, goods coming in from Serbia did not pay customs duty, undermining Pristina's claim to statehood.
Zvezdan Djukanovic contributed to this report from Zvecane, Kosovo.