March 11, 2020 / 11:51 AM / 22 days ago

Kosovo fears U.S. may pull troops out over Serbia tariff dispute

PRISTINA (Reuters) - Concern is growing in Kosovo that the United States may pull its troops out of the Balkan country in retaliation for tariffs imposed by Pristina on goods from its rival Serbia.

Some politicians have called for the tariffs to be lifted rather than jeopardise the relationship with Washington, where senators have threatened to push for a withdrawal.

Kosovo introduced the tariffs in November 2018 after Serbia blocked the breakaway former province’s membership in international organizations, including Interpol and UNESCO.

In response, Belgrade quit a dialogue with Pristina, saying it would continue only once the tariffs were removed.

The European Union and the United States, both of which still have peacekeeping troops in Kosovo, kept pressure on Kosovo’s new government to remove taxes to continue the dialogue that would enable Kosovo to become a United Nations member.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has taken a key role in the past months in trying to negotiate a deal between the two countries.

But U.S. envoy Richard Grenell has warned the Kosovo government that it will face consequences if it does not remove the tariffs.

Senator David Perdue said Kosovo should abolish all duties imposed on Serbia or “the US should reconsider its presence there”. About 700 U.S. troops are stationed in Kosovo.

“Time to bring our troops home after so many years over there,” tweeted Rand Paul, another US senator.

U.S. troops arrived in Kosovo in June 1999 after the separatist war ended and in the past two decades, together with other NATO member states, have maintained a fragile peace under control.

Under U.S. command, NATO bombed Serbian forces in 1999 to halt killings and expulsions of Kosovo Albanians. Backed by the United States and most EU countries, Kosovo declared independence in 2008. It is not recognized by Serbia, Russia or China.

Washington remains Kosovo’s biggest supporter both politically and financially.

Prime Minister Albin Kurti said Kosovo would remove the tariffs partially and with some conditions but Washington said this was not enough.

Kurti’s coalition partner, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), said it would quit the government rather than break relations with Washington.

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, who believes a final deal with Belgrade is only possible with Washington’s mediation, has urged the government to lift the tariffs.

“You have greatly undermined our special relationship with the US and without it we would have neither freedom, nor the state, nor the future. This approach is also questioning the future of our state” Thaci wrote on social media.

Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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