Hundreds of ethnic Serbs rallied in Kosovo on Sunday as a dispute over vehicle license plates heightened ongoing tensions between Belgrade and Pristina.
The government's decision to gradually ban Serbia-issued license plates has angered Kosovo Serbs, most of whom live in the north of the country and do not recognise Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence.
The Kosovo PM Albin Kurti's demand that the police begin to issue warnings to those who continued to use Belgrade-issued licence plates led members of the ethnic Serb minority to leave their government jobs on Saturday in a protest over the directive.
During Sunday's protest in the northern Kosovo Serb-majority municipality of North Mitrovica, Serb political leaders said the police officers, judges and other public employees would not return to their jobs unless Kosovo's government reversed its license plate policy.
"We are on our land, and we will not give up," Serb politician Goran Rakić said. "There is no withdrawal. Long live Serbia."
The NATO-led peacekeeping mission in the country, KFOR, has stated that it stands ready to intervene in case of further on-the-ground escalations.
Brussels demands an end to unilateral decisions
Demands for increased rights for Albanians and an end to active oppression sparked a 1998-1999 armed conflict in which some 13,000 people died.
At least 1 million became refugees after the government in Belgrade led by strongman Slobodan Milošević launched a brutal crackdown against Kosovo's ethnic Albanians.
NATO bombed Serbia and Montenegro — which were in a state union at the time — in 1999 to end the war.
The Serbian government, with support from China and Russia, has refused to acknowledge Kosovo's statehood and has blocked its membership in international organisations like the UN and Interpol.
Most European Union member states, the UK and the US recognise Kosovo as an independent country.
Both Serbia and Kosovo have been told they must normalise relations in order to advance in their effort to join the EU.
However, EU-mediated talks have stalled, triggering concerns of instability more than two decades after the conflict.
The bloc's top diplomat Josep Borrell said in a statement on Saturday that the latest developments in Kosovo "put years of hard work and achievements reached under the EU-facilitated Dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina at risk and hamper the security situation in the region and beyond."
Borrell also called for "both sides to refrain from any unilateral actions, which might lead to further tensions."
Further dashing hopes of a quick resolution, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić said Sunday that the country's leadership had rejected the latest agreement proposal spearheaded by France and Germany.
The proposal reportedly offered Serbia a faster track to EU membership in exchange for Kosovo's membership in the United Nations.
Dačić told the local Prva TV outlet that the proposal submitted by France and Germany "starts from the position that the independence of Kosovo is already a foregone conclusion."
"Serbia cannot accept that," he said.
Kosovo's government previously postponed a requirement for vehicles holding old or Serbian license plates to replace them with Kosovar ones until 1 November.
EU and US officials have stepped up efforts to bring Serbia and Kosovo closer to an agreement on fully normalizing their relations.
The West fears Russia could try to destabilise the Balkans to avert at least some attention from its invasion of Ukraine.