Kosovo's rival communities reach deal on World Heritage site

FILE - This May 11, 2006 file photo shows the Serb Orthodox Monastery of Visoki Decani in western Kosovo. Italian mediation on Thursday Nov. 12, 2020, helped resolve a two-decade dispute between Kosovo's ethnic Albanian government and the Serb minority, allowing a key road project that bypasses the historic Christian Orthodox monastery listed as an endangered World Heritage site. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu, File)
FILE - This May 11, 2006 file photo shows the Serb Orthodox Monastery of Visoki Decani in western Kosovo. Italian mediation on Thursday Nov. 12, 2020, helped resolve a two-decade dispute between Kosovo's ethnic Albanian government and the Serb minority, allowing a key road project that bypasses the historic Christian Orthodox monastery listed as an endangered World Heritage site. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu, File) (AP2006)

PRISTINA – Italian mediation on Thursday helped resolve a long-running dispute between Kosovo's ethnic Albanian government and the Serb minority, allowing a highway project that will bypass a historic Christian Orthodox monastery listed as an endangered World Heritage site.

Serb Orthodox leaders long protested works to greatly widen a road brushing the 14th Century Visoki Decani Monastery — one of Kosovo's top mediaeval Serbian monuments. They argued that it violated site protection rules and that heavy traffic using the road to access a planned ski resort would damage the buildings and their natural surroundings.

They also cited a series of grenade attacks against the monastery spurred by ethnic hatred after Kosovo's 1998-99 war. These led to NATO-led peacekeepers being permanently stationed to guard the complex, located some 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of the capital, Pristina.

The deal agreed Thursday will allow construction of a new highway that bypasses the UNESCO World Heritage site and leads to the resort and to neighboring Montenegro. The existing, widened road will remain, but is expected to be largely superseded by the new one.

Italy's ambassador to Kosovo, Nicola Orlando and the head of the KFOR peacekeeping force, Italian Gen.-Maj. Michele Risi, mediated the agreement. An official involved in the talks said the bypass project's cost was unclear but would likely be covered by the European Union.

“Such an agreement testifies that the Republic of Kosovo is a country of equality, of freedom and rights which are respected and protected similarly for everyone,” Kosovar Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti, who was also involved in the talks, said in a statement.

Monk Sava Janjic from the Visoki Decani monastery said on Twitter that the “arrangement will protect the monastery from the construction of the international road, which will go via a bypass, and in return will enable rehabilitation of the existing road ... for local use.”

Kosovo's Foreign Ministry also hailed the deal, saying in a statement that the road is "of strategic importance for all Albanians, eases the free movement of people and goods and also will be attractive for tourism development.”