Thousands protest in Belgrade against the Western-backed Serbia-Kosovo deal

BELGRADE, March 17 (Reuters) – Several thousand people gathered in Belgrade to protest a Western-backed deal to normalize ties between Kosovo and Serbia, which they see as a recognition of Kosovo’s independence.

The Serbian constitution considers Kosovo to be an integral part of its territory, even though it declared independence in 2008 with support from the US and the European Union. Bilateral ties must be restored so that Serbia and Kosovo can achieve their strategic goal of joining the EU.

Protesters held Serbian flags and banners reading “Kosovo is not for sale”, “Serbia, not the European Union” and “No to capitulation”.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic will meet Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti and EU officials in Ohrid, North Macedonia, on Saturday to discuss the implementation of the deal on normalizing ties both sides agreed last month.

“I think the deal means we recognize Kosovo, which is not acceptable,” Bogdan, a 26-year-old student protester who refused to give his last name, said in an interview.

Demonstrators in front of the Saint Sava Church in Belgrade walked towards the presidency building.

“This is just the beginning of the protest,” said Milos Jovanovic, leader of the Democratic Party of Serbia, one of the organizers of the protest.

“It (the deal) is definitely a recognition (of Kosovo), whether you say it explicitly or it is implied indirectly, it is still recognition and it is not acceptable.”

In 1999, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bombed Serbia in response to the expulsion of the majority of Albanians by Serbian forces in Kosovo.

Reporting by Ivana Sekularac; Edited by Richard Chang

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