Kosovo has demanded that Serbia pull its troops back from their common border and warned it was ready to protect its territorial integrity, after the US warned of punitive measures against Belgrade and Serbia’s president insisted he “does not want war”.
“We call on … Serbia to immediately withdraw all troops from the border with Kosovo,” the Kosovan government said, demanding that Belgrade “demilitarise” 48 forward military and police bases, “which pose a permanent threat to our country”.
Tensions between the two countries have been high since last Sunday when well-armed Serbian paramilitaries ambushed a Kosovan police patrol, killing a police officer. Three Serbian gunmen were killed in the ensuing battle, near the village of Banjska.
The gun battle prompted fresh international concern over the stability of Kosovo, which has an ethnic Albanian majority and declared independence from Serbia in 2008 after a guerrilla uprising and a 1999 Nato intervention.
Serbia pulled back some of its troops on Saturday after warnings from Washington that it could face punitive measures over what the White House called an “unprecedented” buildup of Serbian troops and armour on the border.
The Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, said in a statement to the Financial Times that he had given the order for the part withdrawal, saying any military action would be counterproductive and adding: “Serbia does not want war.”
A Kosovan government official confirmed the removal of some troops and equipment that had been moved into positions around the border over the past five days, but a significant force remains permanently based in the area.
“The deployment of Serbian troops along the border with Kosovo is the next step by Serbia to threaten the territorial integrity of our country,” the Kosovan government said in its statement, issued late on Saturday after the part withdrawal.
“This deployment also includes the deployment of anti-aircraft systems and heavy artillery.” It added: “Kosovo, in coordination with international partners, is more determined than ever to protect its territorial integrity.”
The Pristina government said it had “maintained continuous contact with the US and with EU countries regarding this serious threat from Serbia, and the reaction of the US … has been immediate and direct”.
On Friday the US said it was monitoring Serbian deployment along the Kosovo border. The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, called Vučić to demand “immediate de-escalation” and a return to a previous agreement to normalise relations with Kosovo.
Vučić said Blinken had told him there could be US measures against Serbia if he did not comply. Nato, which has 4,500 troops in Kosovo, has since authorised the reinforcement of its Kfor peacekeeping force with hundreds of British troops.
Unease in Kosovo’s troubled north has been building for months since the prime minister, Albin Kurti, sparked protests and riots this spring by installing ethnic Albanian mayors in four Serb-majority municipalities there.
EU-sponsored negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia’s leaders have repeatedly broken down and appear all but dead in the water after last Sunday’s fighting.
The analyst Dimitar Bechev said in a column for Carnegie Europe: “The more such incidents occur, the less likely it is that Serbia and Kosovo will be willing or able to compromise. The EU will not be able to fix the problem – perhaps only manage it.”
Source : The Guardian