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Kosovska Mitrovica, Kosovo - A barricade that symbolised the angry refusal of ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo to merge with the rest of the country was removed on Wednesday after three years and replaced with flower boxes.
Early on Wednesday, a bulldozer was brought in to shift the unsightly pile of earth and concrete blocks that lay across the main bridge over the Ibar river in the northern flashpoint town of Mitrovica, an AFP correspondent reported.
The river separates the ethnic Albanians in the southern half of the town from ethnic Serbs in the north who largely refused to recognise Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008.
For a while, vehicle traffic moved freely across the bridge, but it was once again blocked in the afternoon when workers showed up to place a series of flower boxes containing small fir trees across the span.
They also laid a large patch of soil in preparation for what the mayor of the town's Serb part, Goran Rakic, said would become a “peace park” to replace the barricade.
“I did not make the decision on my own. Following consultations with Belgrade I spoke to the mayor of southern Mitrovica and it was decided to have a peace park on the bridge,” Rakic told AFP.
“The mayor from the southern Mitrovica will do the same from his part of the bridge, so we will have a park and the bridge will be for pedestrians only, without car traffic,” Rakic said.
The mayor Agim Bahtiri was not immediately available for comment.
“We hold out a hand to our Albanian neighbours hoping that they will not interpret our gesture as a sign of weakness and that they will not abuse our trust,” Rakic said earlier in the day.
“Instead of being on guard forever, we believe it is better that our children play together in the park.”
Not everyone welcomed the removal of the barricade, which was erected in 2011 in response to an abortive attempt by Kosovo authorities to take full control of the region.
“Now, we have no more protection,” Dragoslav Vicentijevic, a pensioner, told AFP.
Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci hailed the move, telling local media it was “further proof of the successful implementation” of an EU-brokered deal to normalise ties between Serbia and Kosovo that was signed last year.
Many of the 40,000 ethnic Serbs of north Kosovo had strongly resisted the deal, refusing to recognise the government in Pristina and accusing Belgrade of betrayal.
But left with few options, they grudgingly took part in Kosovo parliamentary elections for the first time earlier this month.
Serbia still does not recognise Kosovo's independence but implicitly agreed to accept the Pristina government's authority over the territory in return for the opening of EU accession talks.
There are a total of 120,000 ethnic Serbs living throughout Kosovo, a country of 1.6 million, but most are scattered in small communities away from the border.
Kosovo's independence has been recognised by more than 100 countries, including the United States and most of the European Union's 28 member states.