PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Serbia placed its security troops on the Kosovo border on Monday in “full combat readiness,” ignoring NATO calls to defuse tensions between the two Balkan foes in times of war.
Serbian Interior Minister Bratislav Gasic said he had “ordered full combat readiness” of the police and other security units and that they be under the command of the army chief of staff in accordance with “his operational plan”. .
He said in a statement that he acted on the order of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic so that “all measures are taken to protect the Serb people in Kosovo.”
It was not immediately clear what this order meant on the ground, as Serb troops have been on high alert for some time on the Kosovo border. The authorities denounce the alleged harassment of Kosovar Serbs by ethnic Albanians, who are the majority in the breakaway province that declared its independence in 2008.
Early Monday, NATO-led peacekeepers said they were investigating a shooting incident in a tense region of northern Kosovo, urging calm as Serbia’s top military officials inspected their troops at the border in a Demonstration of combat readiness.
The incident on Sunday night took place in Zubin Potok, a town where local Serbs have been barricading roads for the past two weeks and where tensions have risen.
The peacekeepers, known as KFOR, said the incident occurred near one of their patrols, involving unknown persons. A statement said no one was injured and “we are working to establish all the facts.”
The Serbian Defense Minister and the Army Chief of Staff traveled to the Kosovo border and praised the combat readiness of Serbian troops and their firepower, including howitzers and other military equipment. Serbia, which has been armed through Russian donations and military purchases, has been saber-rattling and forcefully threatening its former province for a long time.
Kosovo remains a potential flashpoint in the Balkans years after the 1998-1999 war that ended with NATO intervention. Serbia does not recognize its former province’s 2008 declaration of independence, while Western efforts to broker a solution have so far failed.
“It is important that all involved avoid any rhetoric or action that could cause tensions and escalate the situation,” KFOR said in a statement. “We hope that all actors refrain from provocative shows of force and seek the best solution to ensure the safety of all communities.”
Fears of violence have been running high since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The United States and most of the European Union countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence, while Serbia has leaned on Russia and China in its attempt to maintain its claim to the province.
The rising tensions involve various issues amid international efforts to step up mediation efforts. More recently, ethnic Serbs in the north put up barricades in protest of the arrest of a former Serb police officer.
Northern Serbs had previously withdrawn from Kosovo institutions, claiming harassment by Kosovo authorities. Belgrade has repeatedly warned that it would protect local Serbs “with all means” if they are attacked.
The Kosovo government has asked NATO troops, which were deployed in 1999 after the transatlantic alliance bombed Serbia out of Kosovo, to remove Serb roadblocks. Prime Minister Albin Kurti, KFOR commander Major General Angelo Michele Ristuccia, and Lars-Gunnar Wigermark, who heads an EU public order mission, met on Monday to discuss the situation, KFOR said on Twitter. .
Kurti’s office said that “the common conclusion of this meeting is that freedom of movement should be restored and there should be no roadblocks on any road.”
Serbia held a high-level meeting after the shooting on Sunday, with the army chief of staff later heading to the southern town of Raska, near Kosovo, where Serbian army troops are based. Local media released a video in which shots and screams are heard, but without clearly showing what happened at one of the barricades.
General Milan Mojsilovic told local media that the army received “clear and precise” instructions from Serbia’s populist President Vucic. Mojsilovic described the situation as “serious” and added that it requires the “presence of the Serbian army along the administrative line” with Kosovo, state television RTS reported.
Serbian army vehicles could be seen on the roads in the area on Monday, and the Balkan nation’s defense minister also arrived. Serbian Defense Minister Milos Vucevic, General Mojsilovic and other senior army officers discussed the security situation during a meeting in Raska, according to a Defense Ministry statement.
Serbia has asked KFOR to deploy up to 1,000 of its troops in Serb-populated north Kosovo to protect Kosovo Serbs from alleged harassment by ethnic Albanians, who are the majority in the country. The request has so far not been granted.
Adding to the tensions, Serbian Patriarch Porfirije was denied entry into Kosovo at a border crossing on Monday after saying he would like to deliver a message of peace for Serbian Orthodox Christmas, which falls on January 7.