Kosovo will not delay Serb car plate rule despite calls by West

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PRISTINA/BELGRADE (Reuters) – Kosovo will defy calls by Western countries for a 10-month delay in the implementation a rule under which ethnic Serbs switch their car licence plates to local ones, Kosovo’s prime minister said on Tuesday, in a move that could aggravate ethnic tensions.

The attempt by Kosovo’s government to oblige its Serb minority to change their old car plates has been met with strong and sometimes violent resistance this year by local Serbs who live in the northern part of the country.

Kosovo’s main backers, the United States and the European Union, have publicly asked Prime Minister Albin Kurti to delay the rule for 10 months and avoid ethnic tensions. The government had given Serbs 60 days from September 1 — terminating at the end of October — to get the new plates.

“We already delayed the deadline…the last date is October 31 when all Kosovo citizens who have old car plates, that are a legacy of the Milosevic era, will be able to convert them into legitimate ones,” Kurti told reporters in Pristina, referring to late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Kurti said there are about 10,000 motorists who need to switch old car registrations that date before 1999, when Kosovo was still a province of Serbia.

More than 13,000 people are believed to have died during the 1998-99 war in Kosovo, when the southern province was still part of Serbia under Milosevic’s rule.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008 but around 50,000 ethnic Serbs who live in northern Kosovo refuse to recognize Pristina’s authority and are still controlled by Serbia.

Talks between Kosovo and Serbia under the auspices of the European Union and U.S. envoys have so far failed to find a solution since Sept. 1, when Pristina postponed its last attempt to force its ruling over plates.

NATO, which has around 3,700 peacekeepers on the ground, has urged both countries to find a solution and not create further strains in a region already marred by ethnic tensions.

“Difficult time is ahead of our people and it would be crazy for me to predict anything,” Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic told reporters when asked what would happen on Nov. 1 when the deadline ends.

(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci in Pristina and Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade, Editing by William Maclean)