Serbia puts its troops on combat alert along Kosovo border

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Serbia deployed its security forces on the Kosovo border on “full operational readiness” on Monday, defying NATO calls to ease tensions between the two Balkan wartime foes.

Serbia’s Interior Minister Bradislav Gasic said he had “ordered” the police and other security forces to “full combat readiness” and put them under the command of the army chief according to “their action plan”.

He said in a statement that he was acting on the orders of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić in order to “take all measures to protect the Serbian people in Kosovo.”

It was unclear what the order meant on the ground, as Serbian troops have been on guard along the border with Kosovo for some time. Kosovo Serbs were allegedly harassed by ethnic Albanians, who make up the majority in the breakaway province that declared independence in 2008, officials said.

Earlier on Monday, NATO-led peacekeepers said they were investigating a shooting in Kosovo’s tense north and urged calm as senior Serbian military officials inspected their troops at the border in a show of combat readiness .

The incident on Sunday night took place in Zubin Potok, where local Serbs have been barricading the town for the past two weeks and tensions have been high.

The peacekeepers, known as KFOR, said the incident occurred near one of their patrols and involved unidentified people. A statement said no one was injured and “we are working to establish all the facts.”

Serbia’s defense minister and army chief traveled to the Kosovo border to praise the readiness of the Serbian army and its firepower, including howitzers and other military equipment. Serbia, armed with Russian donations and arms purchases, has long waged threats of force and threats of force in its former province.

Years after the end of the 1998-99 war, which ended with NATO intervention, Kosovo remained a potential flashpoint in the Balkans. Serbia does not recognize its former province’s 2008 declaration of independence, and Western efforts to mediate a settlement have so far failed.

“All those involved should refrain from any remarks or actions that could lead to tension and escalation,” KFOR said in a statement. “We hope that all participants will refrain from provocative displays of force and seek the best solutions to keep all communities safe.”

Fears of violence have been soaring since Russia launched a war on Ukraine. The United States and most EU countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence, while Serbia relies on Russia and China to maintain its claim to the province.

The escalation of tensions touches on several issues amid international efforts to step up mediation efforts. Most recently, Serbs in the north set up roadblocks to protest the arrest of a former Serb policeman.

Serbs in the north have previously walked out of Kosovo institutions, claiming harassment by Kosovar authorities. Belgrade has repeatedly warned that it will “do everything in its power” to protect local Serbs if they are attacked.

Kosovo’s government has asked NATO troops – which were deployed in 1999 after the transatlantic alliance bombed Serbia and forced it to leave Kosovo – to dismantle Serb roadblocks. KFOR said on Twitter that Prime Minister Albin Kurti, KFOR Commander Major General Angelo Michel Ristuccia and Lars Gunnar Wij, head of the EU law and order mandate, Gemack met Monday to discuss the situation.

“The common conclusion of this meeting was that freedom of movement should be restored and there should be no barricades on any road,” Kurti’s office said.

Serbia held a high-level meeting on Sunday after the shooting, before its army chief traveled to the southern town of Raska, near Kosovo, where Serbian troops are based. Local media showed a video in which gunshots and shouts could be heard, but it did not clearly show what happened at one of the barricades.

General Milan Mojsilovic told local media that the army had received “clear and precise” instructions from Serbia’s populist President Vucic. Mojsilovic described the situation as “serious”, adding that it required “the presence of the Serbian army on the administrative line” with Kosovo, state RTS television reported.

Serbian military vehicles were seen on roads in the region on Monday, and the Balkan country’s defense minister also arrived. Serbian Defense Minister Milos Vucevic, General Mojsilovic and other senior military officials discussed the security situation at a meeting in Raska, the defense ministry statement said.

Serbia has asked KFOR to deploy up to 1,000 troops in Serb-heavy northern Kosovo to protect Kosovo Serbs from harassment by ethnic Albanians, who make up the majority in the country. So far, the request has not been approved.

Adding to the tension, Serbian Patriarch Porfirije was denied entry to Kosovo at a border crossing on Monday after he said he wanted to send a message of peace for the Serbian Orthodox Christmas, which is celebrated on Jan. 7.

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