According to senior officials, Serbia has put its security forces on the border with Kosovo on “full combat readiness,” in the midst of increasingly tense relations with its neighbour and despite demands from the European Union and NATO to ease tensions between former opponents of the war.
“Serbia’s president… ordered the Serbian army to achieve maximum combat readiness, i.e. in terms of the use of armed force,” Serbian Defense Minister Milos Vucevic said in a statement late on Monday.
He added that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic had also ordered the special forces to be increased from the current 1,500 to 5,000, Vucevic said.
The country’s interior minister, Bratislav Gasic, said that he had ordered “full combat readiness” from the police and other security units and subordinated them to the Army Chief of Staff in accordance with “their operational plan.”
In a statement, he said he had acted on President Vucic’s instructions to “take all measures to protect the Serbian people in Kosovo.”
Vucic’s orders come after Serbian Army Chief Milan Mojsilovic was sent to the border with Kosovo on Sunday. However, it was not immediately clear what the new orders meant on the border, where Serbian troops have been on alert for some time.
Northern Kosovo has been particularly tense since November, when hundreds of Serbian workers working in the Kosovo police and judiciary — such as judges and prosecutors — quit their jobs in protest against a controversial decision to ban Serbs living in Kosovo from using license plates issued in Belgrade.
Serbia, which does not recognize Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, has long threatened with sabre-rattling and violence against its former province — and the now independent Kosovo — and continued tensions remain a potential flashpoint. The West’s previous efforts to mediate a solution have failed.
On Monday, NATO-led peacekeepers said they would investigate a shooting incident in the troubled northern region of Kosovo and urged calm as Serbia’s senior military officials inspected their troops on the border to demonstrate their combat readiness.
The Sunday evening incident happened in Zubin Potok, a city where local ethnic Serbs have been operating street barricades for the past two weeks and where tensions are high.
The peacekeepers, known as KFOR, said the shooting happened near one of their patrols involving unknown people. A statement said no one was injured and “we are working to establish all the facts.”
#KFOR is investigating an indirect fire on December 25 in close proximity to an @NATO_KFOR patrol. The incident involved unknown armed people in the Zubin Potok area. pic.twitter.com/1fsZndewae
— @NATO — KFOR (@NATO_KFOR) December 26, 2022
“It is important that all parties involved avoid any rhetoric or actions that could create tension and escalate the situation,” KFOR said in a statement. “We expect all actors to refrain from provocative power games and seek the best solution to ensure the safety of all communities.”
Fear of violence has increased since the start of the Russian war in Ukraine. The United States and most EU countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence, while Serbia has relied on Russia and China in its attempt to maintain its claim to its former province.
In light of international efforts to intensify mediation efforts, increasing tensions are associated with several problems. Ethnic Serbs have recently set up roadblocks in the north to protest the arrest of a former Serbian police officer.
The Kosovo government has asked NATO troops, which were deployed in 1999 after NATO bombed Serbia to leave Kosovo, to remove Serbian roadblocks. Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, the KFOR Commander, Major General Angelo Michele Ristuccia, and Lars-Gunnar Wigermark, who heads an EU law and order mission, met on Monday to discuss the situation, KFOR said on Twitter.
Kurti’s office explained that “the common conclusion from this meeting is that freedom of movement should be restored and that there should be no barricades on any street.”
Serbia, for its part, has asked KFOR to station up to 1,000 of its troops in Serb-populated northern Kosovo to protect Kosovo Serbs from alleged harassment by ethnic Albanians, who make up the majority in the country. The request has not yet been approved.
Adding to the tensions, Serbian Patriarch Porfirije was denied entry to Kosovo at a border crossing on Monday after he said he wanted to deliver a message of peace on Serbian Orthodox Christmas, which is celebrated on January 7.