NATO says it is ready to step up forces if Serbia-Kosovo tensions escalate

BRUSSELS, Aug 17 (Reuters) – NATO will increase its peacekeeping force in Kosovo if tensions with neighboring Serbia escalate, the head of the alliance said on Wednesday, on the eve of EU-facilitated talks between the splintered Western Balkan neighbours.

“We now have an important mission, a military presence of about 4,000 soldiers in Kosovo,” Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference after talks with Serbian President Aleksandar Vukic in Brussels.

“If necessary, we will move troops, deploy them where needed and increase our presence. We have already increased our presence in the north. We are ready to do more.”

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Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo rose this month when Pristina said it would start using car license plates issued in Pristina to Serbs in the north, who are backed by Belgrade and do not recognize Kosovo institutions.

The situation calmed down after Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, under pressure from the US and the European Union, agreed to postpone the regulation of number plates until September 1 and NATO peacekeepers supervised the removal of roadblocks erected by the Serbs.

However, Vucic told a press conference at NATO that talks with Kurti on Thursday, which will be facilitated by the EU, will be difficult because the two sides disagree on almost everything.

Kurti, who later met with Stoltenberg, underlined Kosovo’s determination to become a NATO member.

“Our country also feels the threats, risks and challenges that NATO faces in the current security environment,” he told reporters, linking the problems to Russia’s influence.

“The current situation has reason for Kosovo’s institutions and citizens to be alert to the destructive approach of our northern neighbor under Russia’s harmful agenda for Kosovo and in general for Europe and the Balkans.”

Kosovo gained independence from Serbia in 2008, after nearly a decade of guerrilla insurgency against the repressive Belgrade regime.

Serbia legally still considers Kosovo an integral part of its territory. It denies whipping up tension and conflict there and accuses Pristina of trampling on the rights of the Serb minority. 5% of Kosovo’s population of 1.8 million are ethnic Serbs, while 90% are ethnic Albanians.

Vucic said that Serbia wanted to avoid any escalation of the situation, but that it was important to understand that there is a “new generation of young people” who see Kosovo as Serbian territory and will no longer “tolerate terrorism”.

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Reporting by John Chalmers; Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold; Editing by Jonathan Otis

Our Standards: Principles of Thomson Reuters Trust.

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