NATO to send 700 more troops to Kosovo to help quell violent protests

May 30, 2023
NATO will deploy additional forces to Kosovo in response to violent clashes that injured dozens of Serb protesters and international peacekeepers, sparking fears of a wider conflict in the Balkans nation.
NATO will deploy additional forces to Kosovo in response to violent clashes that injured dozens of Serb protesters and international peacekeepers, sparking fears of a wider conflict in the Balkans nation.

BRUSSELS/ PRISTINA — NATO will deploy additional forces to Kosovo in response to violent clashes that injured dozens of Serb protesters and international peacekeepers, sparking fears of a wider conflict in the Balkans nation.

The US-led military alliance said it had decided to send Operational Reserve Forces into Kosovo and instruct an additional battalion of troops to be ready to deploy in seven days if necessary.

The street violence since Monday, in which three NATO troops were shot and 27 more were injured after being hit by projectiles and improvised explosive devices, is the worst to hit Kosovo in years, and threatens to derail an EU-brokered deal intended to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia.

The additional deployment of NATO forces was a “prudent maintain security” in Kosovo, said Stuart B. Munsch, commander of NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, which is the command base for the peacekeeping mission known as KFOR.

The violence, which also injured more than 50 protesters, has laid bare the failure by the EU and US to find a solution to the crisis over Kosovo’s sovereignty that has resulted in regular border clashes despite repeated attempts at diplomacy by Western powers.

NATO chief Jen Stoltenberg condemned the violence, saying that “such attacks are unacceptable and must stop.” He warned that NATO troops “will take all necessary actions to maintain a safe and secure environment for all citizens in Kosovo.”

Stoltenberg said Tuesday that the military organization will send 700 more troops to northern Kosovo to help quell violent protests after clashes with ethnic Serbs there left 30 international soldiers wounded.

“We have decided to deploy 700 more troops from the operational reserve force for Western Balkans,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Oslo, after talks with Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store.

He said that NATO would also “put an additional battalion of reserve forces on high readiness so they can also be deployed if needed. These are prudent steps.”

A battalion typically ranges from 300 to around 1,000 troops. The NATO-led peacekeeping mission, KFOR, currently consists of almost 3,800 troops.

Earlier Tuesday, KFOR peacekeepers used metal fences and barbed wire barriers to beef up positions in a hot-spot northern town.

The troops sealed off the municipality building in Zvecan where unrest on Monday sent tensions soaring, raising fears of instability and a flareup in the Balkan hotspot amid increased Western efforts to resolve a long-simmering dispute.

Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti are using the violent scenes in majority-Serb north Kosovo to trade accusations.

In a televised address to the nation, Vucic said “Albin Kurti alone is responsible” for the disturbances in the town of Zvecan.

Vucic urged people to refrain from violence which might fulfil the Kosovo leader’s “desire to bring about a conflict between the Serbs and NATO.”

In return, Kurti claimed the protesters in Zvecan were “a bunch of extremists under the direction of official Belgrade”.

Just for good measure, Serbia’s president blamed the violence on “criminal gangs... who carry out Vucic’s orders to destabilize the north of Kosovo”.

Somewhere in the middle, you can hear diplomats from the European Union and the United States gnashing their teeth.

They have spent much of the past year trying to push Belgrade and Pristina towards a normalization agreement.

As it stands, things only look normal if one takes a particularly cynical stance on Serbia-Kosovo relations.

Monday’s ugly scenes have at least focused international attention on the unresolved issues between Kosovo’s ethnic Serb minority and the majority Albanian government in Pristina.

Ethnic Serbs and ethnic Serb parties refused to take part in last month’s mayoral elections in four municipalities in north Kosovo.

That depressed turnout to just 3.5% - and facilitated the election of ethnic Albanian mayors in towns where the vast majority of people are Serbs.

Despite the boycott, Kosovo’s international allies had supported the elections. But they changed their tune when it became clear that the new mayors had no mandate to speak of.

Behind the scenes, they urged Kosovo’s authorities to tread carefully, to avoid stoking tensions in the north.

Their advice fell on deaf ears. Last Friday, armed special police forced their way into municipal buildings in three of the towns, so the new mayors could take office in person. They also removed Serbian flags and replaced them with Kosovo’s gold-and-blue standard.

It prompted a furious response from Kosovo’s staunchest supporters.

The EU and NATO urged Kurti to step back from a clearly provocative position. But the sternest statement of all came from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

He said the US “strongly condemns the actions by the government of Kosovo”, which had “sharply and unnecessarily escalated tensions, undermining our efforts to help normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia”.

He warned there would be “consequences for our bilateral relations with Kosovo”.

But this rebuke had little impact on Kurti, who ignored the calls to de-escalate and blithely stated that Kosovo still enjoyed international support as tensions simmered over the weekend.

Meanwhile, in Serbia, Vucic was ordering troops to the border with Kosovo. It was little more than saber-rattling, as Serbia has no appetite for interfacing with the 4,000 NATO troops who guarantee the peace in Kosovo. — Agencies

May 30, 2023
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