PRISTINA, Dec 22 (Reuters) – (This Dec. 22 story has been corrected to say that police officers were transported by NATO via ground routes, not by helicopter, in paragraph 7)
Kosovo has asked NATO troops to airlift a former Serb policeman who was detained two weeks ago but could not be transferred elsewhere because local Serbs demanding his release set up barricades to prevent him being moved.
Dejan Pantic was arrested on Dec. 10 on charges of assaulting serving police officers during a previous protest.
Tensions have been running high since then as thousands of Kosovo Serbs protest, demanding the country’s Albanian-majority government pulls its police force out of the north, where the Serb minority is concentrated.
Local Serbs, who number around 50,000 in northern Kosovo, reiterated at a protest on Thursday that they would not remove the roadblocks unless Pantic is released.
“He (Pantic) should be in a detention center and not in a police station and that’s why we have asked our international partners to transfer him in an adequate facility,” Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla told a news conference in Mitrovica, just a few kilometers away from the first barricade.
NATO’s mission in Kosovo, KFOR, is the only force that has helicopters. Kosovo has no helicopters and would need NATO’s permission to hire one.
KFOR has already transported via ground routes nine police officers in recent days who were ill but unable to get out of the area after the roads were blocked.
The NATO force, which has more than 3,000 troops on the ground, said the KFOR commander is the sole authority to decide over Kosovo’s airspace.
“Every request that has been refused was because, as in the current situation, there were not the needed security conditions,” KFOR said in a written statement to Reuters without saying what request has been refused.
Svecla said his police force could remove the barricades but that he wanted local Serbs or NATO troops to remove them.
“For the sake of stability we are waiting for them to be removed by those who set them up or KFOR, but even waiting has its end,” he said.
Kosovo’s government has previously said people at the barricades are armed and any police intervention could harm people from both sides.
Ethnic Serb mayors in northern municipalities, along with local judges and some 600 police officers, resigned last month in protest over a Kosovo government decision to replace Serbian-issued car license plates with ones issued by Pristina.
Reporting by Fatos Bytyci, editing by Deepa Babington and Grant McCool
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