Serbia puts troops on ‘highest alert’ amid rising tensions with Kosovo

Serbian armed forces have been put on the “highest level of combat readiness” on the border with Kosovo amid increasingly strained relations between the two neighboring countries over recent shootings and blockades.

“Serbia’s president (Aleksandar Vucic)… ordered this evening the Serbian army to be on the highest level of combat readiness, that is to the level of the use of armed force,” Serbia’s Defence Minister Milos Vucevic said in a statement on Monday.

Vucevic added that President Vucic also ordered the special armed forces to be beefed up from the existing 1,500 to 5,000 amid heightened tensions.

Serbia’s Interior Minister Bratislav Gasic said he “ordered the full combat readiness” of police and other security units and that they are placed under the command of the army chief of staff according to “their operational plan”.

In a statement, Gasic said he was acting on the orders of President Vucic so that “all measures be taken to protect the Serbian people in Kosovo”.

These developments come after Serbian army chief General Milan Mojsilovic was sent to the border with Kosovo on Sunday. However, it was not immediately clear what the new orders mean on the border where Serbian troops have been on alert for some time.

“The situation there is complicated and complex,” Mojsilovic was quoted as saying on Sunday.

Tensions between the Balkan countries have inflamed since November when ethnic Serb workers in the Kosovo police as well as the judicial branch walked off the job over a controversial decision to ban Serbs living in Kosovo from using Belgrade-issued license plates.

Serbia, which does not recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence, has threatened to use force against its former province.

On December 10, Serbs in northern Kosovo set up barricades to protest against the arrest of a former policeman suspected of being involved in attacks against ethnic Albanian police officers.

Just hours after the barricades were erected, Kosovo police said they suffered three successive firearm attacks on one of the roads leading to the border.

Around 100,000 ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo have been demanding the release of several members of their community held by the predominantly ethnic Albanian government.

Serbia has asked the KFOR force to allow it to redeploy troops in Kosovo to protect the Serb population there.

“The situation in the north of the country and recent incidents are caused by illegal structures and criminal activities, coordinated and supported by the government of Serbia,” Kurti’s government said in a statement on Monday.

Belgrade has repeatedly warned it would protect local Serbs “with all means” if they are attacked.

Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia on 17 February 2008 and has since gained diplomatic recognition as a sovereign state by 101 member states of the UN, but Belgrade has refused to recognize it.

The US and most EU countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence, while Serbia has relied on Russia and China in its bid to maintain its claim on the province.

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