A train left Belgrade, Serbia, on Saturday for Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo, where most of Kosovo’s ethnic Serbs live. The train was painted with Serbian flags, religious Christian Orthodox scenes and the words “Kosovo is Serbian” in 20 languages.
By Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press/BELGRADE, Serbia — A train decorated with Serbian nationalist slogans and images departed on Saturday from Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, and headed for northern Kosovo, but it halted at the border in a stunt that set off a dramatic escalation of tensions between the former wartime foes.
Officials in Kosovo had protested that the train’s planned route into Kosovo was a violation of their country’s sovereignty and promised not to let it in.
Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia ordered the train stopped in Raska, Serbia, as it approached the border with Kosovo, a former Serbian province, claiming that ethnic Albanians in Kosovo had tried to mine the railway.
The train was painted with Serbian flags, religious Christian Orthodox scenes and the words “Kosovo is Serbian” in 20 languages.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but Serbia does not recognize the split and has sought to maintain influence in northern Kosovo, where most of the country’s ethnic Serbian minority lives.
At a news conference in Belgrade on Saturday, Mr. Vucic accused Kosovo of plans to arrest the train’s driver and passengers.
“This was an ambition to provoke a conflict, to start a wider conflict in this territory that we consider as ours,” he said. “It was my decision to stop the train in Raska to preserve the freedom and lives of our people, to prevent a wider conflict and show that we want peace.”
“We sent a train, not a tank,” he added.
President Hashim Thaci of Kosovo wrote on his Facebook page on Saturday that his country respected the free movement of people and goods but that a train covered in nationalist banners that violated Kosovo’s Constitution and laws was “completely unacceptable.”
The train was to be the first to travel from Belgrade to Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo, since the 1998-99 Kosovo war. The train later turned back to Belgrade.