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Serbia detains 2 Kosovo policemen in border area

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NEBI QENA | March 31, 2012 05:15 PM EST | AP

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PRISTINA, Kosovo — Two Kosovo policemen who crossed into southern Serbia were detained Saturday, officials said. Kosovo condemned the arrests, saying the officers weren't inside Serbia and that they were "kidnapped."

The incident has fueled tensions leading up to Serbia's general and local elections on May 6. Serbia runs parallel institutions within areas of Kosovo where minority Serbs live in defiance of Pristina's rule. Belgrade intends to hold a local vote for mayors in those areas as part of the elections, a plan that has angered Kosovo.

The Kosovo policemen were detained Saturday in the border region of Merdare and they were armed with pistols, automatic rifles and surveillance equipment, Serbian police said in a statement.

Kosovo's interior minister, Bajram Rexhepi, said the two were kidnapped in an ambush set up by Serbia's police just inside Kosovo's territory.

"They were trapped as they were removing logs from a road that is regularly patrolled," Rexhepi told Kosovo's public television, RTK. "Some 13 Serb gendarmes surrounded, kidnapped them and took them inside Serbia."

Their detention appears to be part of a tit-for-tat dispute. Earlier Saturday, a Kosovo court freed four people working for Serbia's Interior Ministry who were arrested last month for distributing identification documents issued by Serbia. Kosovo was once a province of Serbia and declared independence in 2008, a move that Belgrade still vehemently rejects.

Serbia will hold the policemen for at least another 48 hours in the town of Kursumlija until a prosecutor decides whether to file charges against them. Serbian authorities say that by entering its territory, they violated a military agreement with NATO that brought an end to the 1999 bombing by the alliance and stopped the war in Kosovo. The agreement set up a buffer zone between Kosovo and Serbia patrolled only by NATO troops, and Serbia's military and police forces.

NATO couldn't be immediately reached for comment.

Kosovo has agreed to allow citizens with dual nationality to vote in Serbia's general elections, but authorities said they won't allow the local vote to choose mayors of parallel institutions to go ahead.

Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo's independence, but it must improve ties with its former province to advance its bid to join the European Union.

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Jovana Gec contributed to this report from Belgrade, Serbia.