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NATO urges restraint in Kosovo and Serbia but stands ready to intervene if needed

Peacekeeping forces are “ready to do more” in Kosovo if needed, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday, as Western officials work to reduce tensions between Kosovo and Serbia. 

A long-running border dispute sparked fears of an escalation in the region earlier this summer: Protesters blocked roads in northern Kosovo over new rules requiring Kosovo Serbs to use Kosovo-issued car license plates and for people entering the country to receive special entry documents.

“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,” Stoltenberg told reporters.

The NATO chief held separate meetings in Brussels on Wednesday with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti to discuss the recent tensions, a day ahead of EU-facilitated talks between the two leaders. 

“I call on all sides to show restraint and to avoid violence,” Stoltenberg said. 

The NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) has nearly 4,000 troops in the country. And while it is not the first responder to incidents, it is the final option to intervene if the situation deteriorates.

“Just that presence in itself helps to stabilize, helps to reduce tensions and helps us also to prevent escalation and any type of conflict,” the secretary-general said.

“We have already increased the presence in the north, we are ready to do more,” he said, adding however that “we will act when needed and we act in a proportionate way because our main aim is to help to reduce tensions and to ensure all communities the freedom of movement, the safety of all communities.” 

Kosovo’s Kurti cautioned about the possibility of deepening tensions.  

Speaking to POLITICO following his talks at NATO, the prime minister said “there is an increased danger” of escalation. 

Kurti said he hopes KFOR would prevent “any such reoccurrence of those roadblocks, which impede the freedom of movement, but also security of our police forces and citizens.”

At Thursday’s discussion with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell, the two sides are expected to discuss both current tensions and broader issues. 

The EU has been facilitating a dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo since 2011. But Kurti said Brussels should be more engaged. 

“I think there is way more caution than courage, and this is not helpful,” he said. The EU, according to the prime minister, “should be more firm, more clear, and more active.”

Serbia’s Vučić, meanwhile, said following his discussion with Stoltenberg that the situation is seen differently among different countries.

“Please do not expect Serbs to enjoy and say how they’re having a really nice time,” the president, who spoke in Serbian, said in a press conference at NATO headquarters. “There is a new generation of kids, of young men, in the north of Kosovo,” he said, who “will not put up with the terror, they do not see Kosovo as an independent state.” 

The president also said he wants the sides to talk — while accusing his critics of misrepresenting Serbia’s motives. 

“There are a lot of problems,” the Serbian president said, “and what’s important for us [is] that with the help of KFOR, we should preserve peace and preserve stability.” 

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