Serbia places troops on Kosovo border at 'full state of combat readiness'

Serbia defence minister Milos Vucevic, centre, speaks with Serbian army chief of staff Milan Mojsilovic, centre left, at the army barracks in Raska, south Serbia. Credit: Serbian Defence Ministry

Serbia has placed its security troops on the border with Kosovo on “the full state of combat readiness,” ignoring NATO’s calls for a de-escalation of tensions between the two wartime Balkan foes.

Serbia’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 Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic so that “all measures be taken to protect the Serbian people in Kosovo”.

It was not immediately clear what this order meant on the ground as Serbian troops have been on alert for a while on the border with Kosovo. Officials claim alleged harassment of Kosovo Serbs by ethnic Albanians, who are a majority in the breakaway province that declared its independence in 2008.

The peacekeepers, known as KFOR, said the incident 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”.

On Tuesday Serbs erected more roadblocks in northern Kosovo and defied international demands to remove those placed earlier.

The new barriers, made of laden trucks, were put up overnight in Mitrovica, a northern Kosovo town divided between Kosovo Serbs and ethnic Albanians. It is the first time since the recent crisis started that Serbs have blocked streets in one of the main towns. Until now, barricades had been set on roads leading to the Kosovo-Serbia border.

A barricade made of trucks loaded with stones that was erected during the night on a street in Mitrovica Credit: AP

Serbia’s defence minister and the army’s chief of staff travelled to the border with Kosovo, praising the combat readiness of Serbian troops and their firepower, including howitzers and other military hardware. Serbia, which has been armed through Russian donations and military purchases, has been sabre rattling and threatening force against its former province for a long time.

Kosovo remains a potential flashpoint in the Balkans years after the 1998-99 war that ended with NATO intervention. Serbia doesn’t recognise the 2008 declaration of independence of its former province, while Western efforts to mediate a solution so far have failed.

“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 European Union countries have recognised Kosovo’s independence, while Serbia has relied on Russia and China in its bid to maintain claim on the province.

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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.

Serbs in the north previously had walked out of Kosovo’s institutions, claiming harassment by Kosovo authorities. Belgrade repeatedly has warned it would protect local Serbs “with all means” if they are attacked.

Kosovo’s government has asked NATO troops - which deployed in 1999 after the trans-Atlantic alliance bombed Serbia into leaving Kosovo - to remove the Serb roadblocks. 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.

Mr 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”.

Serbia on Sunday held a top-level meeting after the shooting incident, with the army chief of staff later heading to the southern town of Raska, near Kosovo, where Serbian army troops are located. Local media carried a video with shots and shouts heard, but not showing clearly what happened at one of the barricades.

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

Adding to the tensions, Porfirije, the Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, 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.