March 18, 2020 / 2:42 PM / 20 days ago

Kosovo PM sacks interior minister in coronavirus row, government could fall

PRISTINA (Reuters) - Kosovo’s prime minister sacked the interior minister on Wednesday after a row over whether to declare a state of emergency to halt the spread of coronavirus, a move that could topple the government less than two months after it was formed.

Albin Kurti is seen as parliament convenes for the first time since the October snap election, in Pristina, Kosovo, December 26, 2019. REUTERS/Laura Hasani/Files

President Hashim Thaci urged parliament late on Tuesday to declare a state of emergency, but Prime Minister Albin Kurti said such a drastic measure was not necessary. Interior Minister Agim Veliu publicly sided with the president.

“In these circumstances I am obliged to act and I have decided to dismiss the interior minister Veliu,” Kurti said in a press statement.

Kosovo has confirmed 19 cases of coronavirus but no deaths. Most were linked to Italy, the European country hit hardest by the epidemic.

Kosovo has already closed its borders and shut all schools, flights, bars and restaurants. Only supermarkets and pharmacies remain open. Declaring a state of emergency would put troops on the streets to maintain order and give more powers to the president.

Isa Mustafa, the head of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) and a partner in the ruling coalition, criticised the prime minister’s move and said the government could collapse if the sacked minister was not reinstated by the end of the week.

Mustafa, from whose party Veliu also hails, also made the abolition of 100% tariffs on all Serbian imports a condition of his party’s continued participation in the coalition.

“Unilateral decisions by the prime minister are harmful, unacceptable and will lead to the collapse of the coalition,” Mustafa wrote on facebook.

“I urge the prime minister to annul the decision to dismiss Veliu and take a decision to abolish the tariffs (on Serbian imports) by the end of the week.”

Last week the United States halted some $50 million in aid for Kosovo over its refusal to lift the tariffs, imposed in November 2018 after Serbia blocked Kosovo’s membership of international organisations, including Interpol and UNESCO.

Serbia does not recognise the independence of its former province and talks between the two Balkan neighbours to normalise relations - a condition of their dual bids to join the European Union - have stalled. Belgrade says they will not resume unless Kosovo lifts the tariffs.

U.S. officials have said Washington may take additional measures against Kosovo such as pulling out some 650 U.S. peacekeepers if Pristina refuses to lift the tariffs.

Reporting by Fatos Bytyci, editing by Gareth Jones

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