BELGRADE, Serbia – A Serbian train halted at the border with Kosovo and bearing signs reading "Kosovo is Serbian," has fueled a major crisis in the Balkans and escalated a potential Russia-West row over dominance in the heart of the Balkans.
Serbia accused Kosovo's leaders on Sunday of "wanting war" and warned that it would defend "every inch" of its territory, a day after the train, decorated in Serbian Christian Orthodox symbols and flags, was prevented from entering the neighboring nation.
Kosovo, supported by much of the West, declared independence from Serbia in 2008. But, Serbia and its Slavic Orthodox ally, Russia, do not recognize the split.
Serbia has sought to maintain influence in Kosovo's north, where most of the country's Serb minority lives. NATO-led troops have controlled Kosovo's borders since a three-month air war in 1999 to stop a bloody Serbian crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists.
Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic issued the latest warning after the passenger train, painted in the colors of the red, blue and white Serbian flag, was prevented from crossing into Kosovo, where his government contends ethnic Serbs are under threat from Kosovo Albanians.
"Yesterday, we were on the verge of clashes," Nikolic said after a meeting of the country's top security body following the train's overnight return to Belgrade. He accused the Kosovo Albanians of "wanting war."
"We are a country which has to protect its people and its territory," Nikolic said, in the strongest rhetoric since the NATO-led troops took control of Kosovo's borders in 1999.
Serbia officially is seeking European Union membership, but has lately been sliding toward the Kremlin and its policies to increase its influence in the Balkans. Serbia has strained relations with most of its neighbors — something many analysts believe is a Russian influence.
Kosovo Prime Minister Isa Mustafa said he had contacted the United States and the European Union to express his country's concerns.
"The time of provocation, conflicts and wars should belong to the past," Mustafa said, adding that such moves "are unacceptable, unnecessary actions that do not contribute to the normalization of the relations between our two countries."
Nikolic, who is staunchly pro-Russian, said the EU and the West have never been on Serbia's side or come to its aid.
"Why were the so-called international community and the Albanians so upset about one train?" Nikolic asked. "Maybe because it had 'Kosovo is Serbian' written on it, and because it had pictures of our icons inside."
He also urged that Serbia halt its EU membership negotiation in Brussels, including a key part that calls for normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo.
"My suggestion now is only to talk in Brussels when this train is allowed to pass. ... If there is no freedom of movement, what kind of Western civilization are we talking about then?" he said.
Nikolic also slammed the outgoing Obama administration, and the U.S. support of Kosovo's independence — comments that reflected the general presumption here that President-elect Donald Trump will be more favorable toward Russia and Serbia.
Referring to the naming of several locations in Kosovo after former President Bill Clinton, he said: "It seems to me that these are the last gasps of the outgoing American administration, whose representatives must earn the names of streets and squares they received for directly supporting, sponsoring the independence of Kosovo."
Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo have soared following the recent detention in France of Ramush Haradinaj, a former Kosovo prime minister, on an arrest warrant from Serbia.
Kosovo has called the warrant illegitimate and urged France to ignore it, while Serbia is urging Haradinaj's quick extradition to face war crimes charges.