MITROVICA, Kosovo (AP) — A convoy of 25 Russian trucks carrying aid for Kosovo's dissident Serbs crossed into Kosovo early Friday after a deal between the EU and Moscow ended a tense four-day impasse.
Hundreds of Serbs greeted the convoy along a main road in Kosovo's north where Serb protesters have clashed with NATO and EU forces and put up barricades to resist majority ethnic Albanian rule.
The area has been a source of tensions ever since Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. While major Western powers have recognized the new state, Serbia has rejected such a move.
Moscow, meanwhile, has become the champion of the local Serbs' defiance against Kosovo. Belgrade has refused to use force to save them from ethnic Albanian rule, so the Serbs in Kosovo have turned to the Kremlin for help.
A jubilant crowd of several thousands Serbs gathered in the Serb part of the ethnically split town of Mitrovica on Friday where Russia's ambassador to Serbia, Aleksandr Konuzin, pledged Russia's support for the beleaguered minority.
He handed over a framed portrait of Christ, a gift from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for the Patriarchate of Pec, a Serb Orthodox monastery in the town of Pec that is also the seat of Serbian clergy, some 80 kilometers (60 miles) west of Pristina.
Russia is considered a traditional Serb ally because of common Slavic roots and the Christian Orthodox religion.
"This is a happy day for the Serbs," said Goran Milenovic, a resident of Mitrovica. "It shows that Russia is thinking about us."
The convoy was stranded at the border since Tuesday because Serb protesters refused to let EU police pass through the area. Russian officials in turn refused to use another crossing where they would have been submitted to controls by Kosovo authorities that Russia does not recognize as legitimate.
The head of the 3,000-strong EU police mission, Xavier Bout de Marnhac, brushed aside concern about a humanitarian crisis in Kosovo's north. Three EU police vehicles escorted the convoy early Friday after taking a roundabout way through Serbia to bypass roadblocks.
"We all know that there is no humanitarian crisis in Kosovo, that's obvious," de Marnhac told The Associated Press in an interview on Friday.
"If they (Russia) want to show some kind of support, why not? But it has to be done with respect of some basic principles that are rule of law principles. It's normal to be checked when you cross the gate... That's basic standards anywhere in Europe," de Marnhac said.
The Russian convoy's cargo has raised the suspicions of NATO and EU officials and security forces trying to keep the peace in the area. The canned food, blankets, tents and power generators suggest the convoy is intended for those manning roadblocks, not the general Kosovo Serb population.
Serbs have refused to remove roadblocks that dot the tense area since June after Kosovo authorities sent in special police units to take control of disputed border crossings.
Nebi Qena in Pristina, Kosovo, contributed to this report.