PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — NATO will not allow the Balkan region to slip back into violence amid simmering tensions between Kosovo and Serbia over a border dispute, the alliance's secretary-general said Thursday.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen arrived in Kosovo for a brief visit to ease tensions a day before Kosovo authorities set up customs points on two disputed border crossings with Serbia as part of an EU-brokered deal to resume trade between the former foes.
"Let me be very clear: there can be no turning back," Fogh Rasmussen told reporters after meeting with Prime Minister Hashim Thaci. "NATO has spent 12 years ensuring stability and security we will not allow that achievement to be put at risk."
The top NATO official said recent violence in the border area that left a policeman dead was "bad for the image of Kosovo and a clear setback for the progress achieved."
The U.N. Security Council met Thursday evening to discuss the Kosovo situation at Serbia's request, said Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin.
"This is a very dangerous situation," Churkin said. "This is a new danger of conflict and bloodshed."
In a worrying sign of mounting tensions, the head of the Serb Orthodox Church, Patriarch Irinej, called upon Serbs to stay on and sacrifice themselves for Kosovo.
"If you are in a situation to shed blood, know why you are doing this. It is not in vain," Irinej told Serb faithful in the Serb-run part of the ethnically split town of Mitrovica. "It is sacred martyrdom in defense of the holy land. Stay and fight on this holy land for you will not find a better one."
Serbia, which considers Kosovo the cradle of its statehood and religion, does not recognize Kosovo's independence. In addition, Serbs in the northern part of the former province do not recognize the government in Pristina, Kosovo's capital.
Kosovo's 2008 secession from Serbia is backed by more than 80 countries, but strongly rejected by Serbian ally Russia.
Speaking at a security conference in Belgrade, Serbia's president, Boris Tadic, once again warned against the planned customs takeover, saying it would "seriously endanger peace and stability" in the region.
"That solution has not been agreed between Belgrade and Pristina. This must be prevented," Tadic said.
But, late on Thursday, Thaci told reporters customs and police officers will start implementing the plan Friday with the support of NATO-led peacekeepers and the EU rule of law mission.
Fearful of Kosovo police forces rushing into the Serb-run north, Serbs unloaded truckloads of earth and rocks on the northern part of the bridge that splits the town of Mitrovica into the Serb and Albanian parts.
Thaci ordered police to enforce a trade ban on Serbia in July, but that move was met with violence by minority Serbs who reject Kosovo's independence and refuse to work with Pristina. NATO peacekeepers intervened to quell the violence and took control of the border crossings as part of a temporary deal.
Since then the two sides have agreed to resume trade and Serbia has recognized Kosovo's customs stamps, but minority Serbs that live in the northern part fear the act entrenches Kosovo's statehood and stretches Pristina's control over the territory.
"We cannot accept the customs and being cut off from our country," Milan Ivanovic, a Kosovo Serb lead told Associated Press in the Serb-controlled part of Mitrovica. "The Serbs feel very unsafe, frustrated and worried about the present and especially the coming days."
Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.