Bitterness between Balkan neighbors flashed to the surface this weekend after a train was turned back from the Kosovo border. The train, which had been painted with Serbian national colors and the phrase "Kosovo is Serbia," cut short its journey amid fears it was under threat of violence.
Kosovo had deployed its special forces to prevent the train from crossing its border, The Associated Press reports. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandr Vucic then ordered the train to stop in the Serbian town of Raska, says the BBC, alleging that those forces intended to destroy the track.
"Yesterday, we were on the verge of clashes," Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said Sunday, according to The AP, accusing Kosovo of "wanting war."
Kosovo has denied those allegations.
"The institutions of the Republic of Kosovo will always undertake such actions to protect the country's sovereignty and not allow machines that will provoke with a message of occupation," Kosovar Prime Minister Isa Mustafa told reporters Saturday, according to Reuters.
The tense exchange renews the animosity that has long simmered between the neighbors.
Kosovo, which has an ethnic Albanian majority, unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. Though its statehood has been recognized by the U.S. and many European countries, neither Serbia nor its ally Russia recognizes it as a sovereign country — and Serbia continues to back the ethnic Serb minority population in Kosovo.
That declaration of independence came nearly a decade after U.S.-led NATO forces stepped in to end a violent crackdown by then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic on ethnic Albanian separatists. Before NATO airstrikes forced Belgrade to withdraw from Kosovo in 1999, Reuters says 10,000 Albanian civilians had been killed.
Memories of the violence, never far from the minds of local residents, have surfaced in international headlines in recent months.
A special court was established at the Hague last year, with the express purpose of trying some Kosovar separatists for alleged war crimes during the late '90s violence. And a former Kosovar rebel commander — and prime minister — was arrested in France earlier this month on a warrant from Serbia, over Kosovo's objections.
Given this fraught history, Kosovar officials viewed Saturday's train — which also decorated its interior with Serbian Orthodox icons — as a provocation.
"I believe that turning back the train was the appropriate action," Mustafa said, according to the BBC, "and its entry into the independent and sovereign Republic of Kosovo would not be allowed."