Serbia puts troops in Kosovo as fears of another European war escalate

Kosovo delays Serbia border rules after tension

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Serbian forces built more roadblocks in northern Kosovo today, defying international demands to remove barriers placed there which led to fears that tensions could escalate into an armed conflict. The new barriers, formed of heavily loaded trucks, appeared overnight in Mitrovica, a northern Kosovo town divided between Kosovo Serbs and ethnic Albanians, who represent the majority in Kosovo overall. It came a day after Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said he ordered the army’s highest state of alert to “protect our people (in Kosovo) and preserve Serbia”. 

The blockades are the first time during the recent crisis began 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.

Serbian President Vucic claimed that Kosovan troops are preparing to “attack” Kosovo Serbs in the north of the country and remove by force several of the roadblocks that Serbs started putting up 18 days ago to protest the arrest of a former Kosovo Serb police officer.

Kosovo Serbians make up six percent of the population and Serbian officials have repeatedly claimed they are the victim of discrimination in Kosovo. 

This month Serbia claimed that existing European Union and NATO-led peacekeeping missions had failed to protect the Kosovo Serbian minority. Nearly 4,000 NATO troops are stationed in the region.

On Tuesday, Mr Vucic accused the West and Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian authorities of plotting together to “trigger unrest and kill the Serbs” who are manning the barricades.

“Their aim is to expel Serbia out of Kosovo … with the help of their agents in Belgrade,” he said, apparently referring to the rare opposition and independent media, which are critical of his handling of the Kosovo crisis and his increasingly autocratic policies.

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic on Tuesday refused to comment on claims that Serbia had sent into Kosovo a number of armed men who are probably manning the barricades.

“I will not discuss that with you,” she said when asked by a reporter if she knew whether “Serbia’s armed forces” were currently present in Kosovo.

Kosovo officials, however, have accused Vucic of using Serbia’s state media to stir up trouble and trigger incidents that could act as a pretext for an armed intervention in the former Serbian province.

Petar Petkovic, a Serbian government official in charge of contacts with Kosovo Serbs, told Serbian state television RTS that the combat readiness of Serb troops was introduced because Kosovo had done the same thing. 

Petkovic claimed that heavily armed Kosovo units want to attack Kosovo Serbs, including “women, the elderly, children, men. Our people at the barricades are just defending the right to live.” 

But Kosovo officials have denied that the country has raised its security alert levels.

And Latvia’s defence ministry confirmed that its troops stationed in the country as part of Nato’s peacekeeping mission had been fired upon during Christmas Day.

“On Sunday December 25, shots were fired in the direction of Latvian peacekeepers while conducting a domestic patrol in Kosovo,” it said in a statement. 

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Kosovo has asked NATO-led peacekeepers stationed there to remove the barriers and hinted that they will do it if the Kosovo Force (KFOR), which is the NATO-led peacekeepers, doesn’t react. 

About 4,000 NATO-led peacekeepers have been stationed in Kosovo since the 1999 war, which ended with Belgrade losing control over the territory.

Any Serbian armed intervention in Kosovo would likely result in a clash with NATO forces and would mean a major escalation of tensions in the Balkans, which are still reeling from the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Tensions between Kosovo, which declared independence after a war in 2008, and Serbia have reached their peak over the past month. Western attempts to reach a negotiated settlement have failed, with Serbia refusing to recognize Kosovo’s statehood.

KFOR and the EU have both asked Kosovo and Serbia to show restraint and avoid provocations.

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