BELGRADE: Serb members of the Kosovo government on Tuesday decided to withdraw from Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj's cabinet to protest the arrest and expulsion of a senior Serbian official.
Tensions flared after Belgrade's chief negotiator for Kosovo Marko Djuric was arrested Monday when he crossed into the former Serbian province that unilaterally proclaimed independence in 2008 to attend a meeting in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica in defiance of a ban.
More than 110 countries, including the United States and most European Union members, have recognised Kosovo's independence but Serbia still considers it its southern province.
Goran Rakic, leader of the main Serbian minority grouping, told reporters that ethnic Serbian members "will leave the government which will no longer have our support" following a meeting with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade.
Kosovo Serbs consider Vucic their leader and do not recognise Kosovo's independence.
Late on Tuesday, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini unexpectedly visited Belgrade and discussed the incident with Vucic, which she "deplored" and said "must not happen again".
"The European Union expects calm, wisdom, restraint and leadership to prevail," Mogherini was quoted as saying in a short joint statement released after the meeting.
The two "agreed to find new ways to continue working and resolving peacefully issues between Belgrade and Pristina," it added.
Vucic had Monday slammed Djuric's treatment as an abduction at a time when both sides are trying to establish a dialogue. Kosovo authorities responded that he had not obtained permission to enter.
Serbian officials visiting Kosovo commonly seek Pristina's approval before visiting areas with an ethnic Serb population.
Haradinaj's government depends on the Serb group's support but he responded Tuesday by insisting his team "will not fall" and called their decision to pull out "incomprehensible."
The incident in Mitrovica saw police disperse several dozen residents with tear gas while Djuric was hauled off to a police station in front of television cameras and reporters.
A number of people were hospitalised and hospital spokesman Milan Ivanovic on Tuesday told reporters that "32 people were hurt, eight seriously".
Kosovan minister of agriculture, Nenad Rikalo, suffered a fractured rib.
"What you saw yesterday shows what Pristina and a part of the international community think of dialogue -- I have nothing to add," said Djuric without indicating if Belgrade would break off talks.
"The final decision belongs to Aleksandar Vucic," he said.
After Monday's incident, Mitrovica residents erected a barricade across the road linking their town with Serbia, but the situation was calm Tuesday.
Nearly 20 years after the 1998-1999 war between Serb forces and Kosovo pro-independence ethnic Albanian guerillas, the city remains divided between ethnic Serbs, living north of the Ibar river, and ethnic Albanians, south of it.
International forces are still deployed in the town and throughout the breakaway territory.
Kosovo, which has a population of 1.8 million, 90 percent of whom are ethnic Albanians, is home to some 120,000 ethnic Serbs.
Kosovo Serbs also indicated Tuesday they intended to form next month an association of Kosovo Serb municipalities "in line with the Brussels accord which Pristina and Belgrade have ratified".
Brussels has made the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina a condition of Serbian EU membership while Kosovo hopes for liberalisation of visa regulations for its citizens.