NATO urges Serbia, Kosovo to reduce tensions

Brussels, Aug 17 (EFE).- NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday urged Serbia and Kosovo to reduce bilateral tensions and not to engage in an escalation of violence after Kosovo blocked border passes between the two countries in late July, adding that the NATO peacekeeping operation in the tiny Balkan country (KFOR) is ready to act in the matter, if necessary.

Stoltenberg on Wednesday held separate meetings with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti on the first of two days during which the leaders are in Brussels to seek a solution to recent tensions, which have been exacerbated by Kosovo’s announcement that it will prohibit the use of Serbian identity documents and license plates in its territory.

“While the situation on the ground has improved, it is the responsibility of all parties – particularly officials from Belgrade and Pristina – to prevent escalation again,” warned Stoltenberg after Vucic accused his Kosovo counterpart of preparing to massacre Serbs living in northern Kosovo and Kurti raised the possibility that Serbia might declare war on his country.

Stoltenberg relayed a similar message to both leaders – who did not meet face to face on Wednesday but will do so on Thursday as part of the dialogue sponsored by the European Union – that pending matters should be resolved via the platform being coordinated by the EU’s top foreign affairs official, Spain’s Josep Borrell.

If the situation between the two countries worsens, Stoltenberg said that the KFOR is ready to “intervene,” if necessary, by deploying additional troops in northern Kosovo, where the bilateral frictions are greatest, or by increasing military patrols.

“Of course, we will act when needed and we will act in a proportionate way because our main aim is to help to reduce tensions and to ensure all communities’ freedom of movement – the safety of all communities, including, of course, the Serbs in Kosovo,” said Stoltenberg, who noted that the KFOR consists of about 3,700 troops from 20 allied nations and seven associate nations.

Despite the statements by the Serbian and Kosovo leaders along with the NATO secretary general, the rhetoric and mutual accusations suggest that they will engage in a complicated encounter on Thursday with Borrell, although the dialogue forum between the two countries has been open since 2011 with an eye toward normalizing relations and is a key element in both countries’ aspirations to enter the European community.

Vucic predicted a “difficult” meeting, acknowledging that he and Kurti agree on practically nothing, and he called for “dialogue and negotiation” and urged his counterpart “not to blackmail Serbia about how it has to act or what it must acknowledge.”

Kurti, meanwhile, said that Kosovo has demonstrated its commitment to protecting common principles and values of the Atlantic Alliance and regretted that “illegal (groups) who have become criminal bands” are operating from the Serbian side of the border as well as Russia’s influence on Belgrade.

“In the current situation, the institutions and citizens of Kosovo have reason to be attentive to the destructive approach of our neighbor to the north against Kosovo and the region in general, within the framework of the prejudicial Russian agenda for Europe and the Balkans.”

Serbia has defended the territorial integrity of Ukraine but has not joined the sanctions approved by the EU against Moscow over its invasion of its neighbor, despite the fact that Brussels hopes and expects that countries desiring to become part of the EU – and Serbia has been a candidate for entry since 2012 – will support the bloc’s foreign policy.

The next step in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina will take place on Thursday in Brussels, although to date such top-level meetings have borne little fruit, with the exception of certain quite specific agreements.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but Belgrade does not recognize that move. A total of 97 nations, including the United States and the majority of EU partners, recognize Kosovo’s independence, but Russia, China, India, Brazil and Spain, among other nations, do not.

EFE lzu/mj/bp

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