Serbia has placed its security forces on the border with Kosovo in a “full state of combat readiness”, senior officials have said, amid increasingly strained relations with its neighbour and despite calls by the European Union and NATO for tensions to ease between the once wartime foes.
“Serbia’s president … ordered the Serbian army to be on the highest level of combat readiness, that is to the level of the use of armed force,” Serbia’s Defence Minister Milos Vucevic said in a statement late on Monday.
He added that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic also ordered the special armed forces to be beefed up from the existing 1,500 to 5,000, Vucevic said.
The country’s Interior Minister Bratislav Gasic said he “ordered the full combat readiness” of police and other security units and that they be placed under the command of the army chief of staff according to “their operational plan”.
He said in a statement that he acted on the orders of President Vucic so that “all measures be taken to protect the Serbian people in Kosovo”.
The orders from Vucic come after Serbian army chief General Milan Mojsilovic was dispatched to the border with Kosovo on Sunday, though it was not immediately clear what the new orders mean on the border where Serbian troops have been on alert for some time.
Northern Kosovo has been especially on edge since November when hundreds of ethnic Serb workers embedded in the Kosovo police as well as the judicial branch — such as judges and prosecutors — walked out of their jobs in protest at a controversial decision to ban Serbs living in Kosovo from using Belgrade-issued licence plates.
Serbia, which does not recognise Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence, has been sabre-rattling and threatening force against its former province — and now independent Kosovo — for a long time, and the ongoing tension remains a potential flash point. Western efforts to mediate a solution so far have failed.
Earlier on Monday, NATO-led peacekeepers said they were investigating a shooting incident in the restive northern region of Kosovo, and urged for calm as Serbia’s top military officials inspected their troops on the border in a show of combat readiness.
The incident on Sunday evening took place in Zubin Potok, a town where local ethnic Serbs have been operating road barricades for the past two weeks and where tensions have been running 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 incident on 25 December in the close proximity of a @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 for all involved to avoid any rhetoric or actions that can cause tensions and escalate the situation,” KFOR said in a statement. “We expect all actors to refrain from provocative shows of force and to seek the best solution to ensure the safety and security of all communities.”
Fears of violence have soared since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The United States and most EU countries have recognised Kosovo’s independence, while Serbia has relied on Russia and China in its bid to maintain claim on its former province.
The rising tensions involve several issues amid international efforts to step up mediation efforts. Most recently, ethnic Serbs in the north put up roadblocks in protest of an arrest of a former Serb police officer.
Kosovo’s government has asked NATO troops — deployed in 1999 after NATO bombed Serbia into leaving Kosovo — to remove the Serb roadblocks. Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti, 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 said that “the common conclusion from this meeting is that freedom of movement should be restored and that there should be no barricades on any road.”
For its part, Serbia has asked KFOR to deploy up to 1,000 of its troops in the Serb-populated north of Kosovo to protect Kosovo Serbs from alleged harassment by ethnic Albanians, who are the majority in the country. The request so far has 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 peace message for Serbian Orthodox Christmas, which is celebrated on January 7.