Serbia says number of troops on Kosovo border 'back to normal'

AFP , Monday 2 Oct 2023

Serbia said Monday that its troop numbers are back to normal near the border with Kosovo, which accuses it of trying to annex the Serb-majority north, following deadly clashes there which brought a warning from the United States.

Kosovo police
Kosovo police officers display weapons and military equipment seized in the village of Banjska AFP


The shooting in Kosovo's volatile north, in which a Kosovo police officer and three Serb gunmen were killed, triggered one of the gravest escalations in years in the former Serbian breakaway province with an ethnic Albanian-majority population.

Around 30 gunmen were involved in the hours-long shootout in the village of Banjska on September 24, after they ambushed a police patrol and later barricaded themselves in at an Orthodox monastery near the northern border with Serbia.

The number of Serbian troops deployed near the border with Kosovo has been cut from 8,350 to 4,500, Serbian Army Chief of Staff General Milan Mojsilovic told reporters in Belgrade on Monday.

"It means the regular number of troops" are in the area, he added. "The operational regime of the (Serbian army) units... tasked with securing the administrative line with Kosovo is back to normal."

The announcement came after Washington on Friday called on Serbia to pull its forces back from the border with Kosovo after detecting what it called an "unprecedented" Serbian military build-up.

Serbia had deployed sophisticated tanks and artillery on the frontier after the deadly clashes erupted at the monastery in northern Kosovo last week, the White House warned.

Mojsilovic on Monday voiced surprise over the "deep concern of some" regarding Serbian forces deployed during what he called a "security crisis".

In December 2022 and May 2023, during "similar security crises", Serbia deployed 14,000 troops in the area, he said.

At the time, unlike a week ago, they were on the "highest level of alert", Mojsilovic added.

'A larger plan'

Meanwhile, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti accused Serbia of trying to annex the country's north and said that the latest clashes were part of the plan.

Kurti said Kosovo police confiscated documents which showed the "terrorist" attack against police in Banjska "was part of a larger plan to annex the north of Kosovo" by a coordinated attack on tens of positions in the area.

"Establishing a corridor to Serbia would follow to enable the supply of arms and troops," he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

In the aftermath, Kosovo's government displayed a large arsenal of weapons and equipment and accused the government in Belgrade of backing the incident.

Milan Radoicic, the vice president of Serb List, the Kosovo Serbs' main political party, resigned last week after admitting to organizing the armed group.

However, he denied receiving any help from Belgrade.

The clash on September 24 was just the latest in a long list of incidents in Kosovo's troubled north since Pristina declared independence from Belgrade in 2008.

Serbia, and key allies China and Russia, have refused to recognize the move which came after a war between Belgrade forces and ethnic Albanian insurgents in the late 1990s.

Serbian Defence Minister Milos Vucevic said on Monday that if Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who is also the supreme commander of the country's armed forces, would order that the Serbian army enter Kosovo it would be done "efficiently, professionally, and successfully."

But it would be prior announced to the NATO-led KFOR mission, he said and pledged that Serbia would do all it can "to prevent such a scenario from happening ... to maintain peace and seek political solutions".

Relations between Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority and its Serb minority remain tense.

Despite years of European Union-sponsored talks between Kosovo and Serbia on normalizing ties, little progress has been achieved.

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