Serbia’s president says he has no intention of ordering his country’s military forces to cross the border into Kosovo, despite US officials’ warnings of an “unprecedented” build-up by Belgrade.
In a statement issued to the Financial Times on Saturday, Aleksandar Vučić said that he would draw down Serbia’s forces in the area because an escalation of the conflict would be counter-productive for Belgrade’s EU aspirations.
“Why this would be beneficial for Belgrade?” Vučić said. “What would be the idea? To destroy our position we have been building for a year? To destroy this in a day? Serbia does not want war.”
On Friday White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the US had observed an “unprecedented staging of advanced Serbian artillery, tanks and mechanised infantry units” on the Kosovo border and called it a “very destabilising development”.
“We are calling on Serbia to withdraw those forces from the border and to contribute to lowering the temperature and the tension,” Kirby said, adding that Vučić and Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, had spoken about ways to defuse the situation.
International efforts to cool the tensions have mounted in recent days after a violent stand-off near a monastery in the Serb-majority north of Kosovo left at least four people dead, including a Kosovo police officer.
Kirby said the attack had been “well-co-ordinated and planned”, adding that the size of a weapons cache found afterwards threatened the safety of Kosovo officials and international personnel, including Nato troops.
Vučić told the FT that Washington’s warnings were disproportionate as the number of Serb forces on the ground was declining.
“Last year we had 14,000 men near the administrative line, today we have 7,500 and we will reduce that to 4,000,” he said.
“Serbia sending troops to the administrative line is a pure lie . . . Serbia would not benefit from it as that would jeopardise its position in EU-sponsored talks with Pristina.”
The EU has said it would not admit Serbia or Kosovo to the bloc until they normalised relations.
Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, held talks with Kosovo prime minister Albin Kurti on Friday, where they discussed the EU-sponsored dialogue as the only way out of the crisis.
Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008 after a brief but bloody war in the late 1990s, but Serbia and most ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo never acknowledged its statehood. Serb nationalists reject Pristina’s authority.
The EU, the US and other western powers have tried to broker talks but despite coming close to an agreement in March, the proposals disintegrated as a result of disputed municipal elections in northern Kosovo, which has a majority-Serbian population.
“[Serbs] want to turn back time” to an era when Kosovo still belonged to them, Kurti told the Associated Press. “They are in search of a time machine. They want to turn the clock back by 30 years. But that is not going to happen.”
Milan Radoičić, a hardline Serb political leader in north Kosovo, has taken responsibility for the attacks this month, saying he wanted to stoke resistance to Kurti’s government. Belgrade authorities had not known about his plan, nor did they assist him, he added.
Vučić and Kurti have both called in recent days for Nato-led KFOR peacekeepers to step up their presence in the north of Kosovo. On Friday Nato said it would do that, including by deploying hundreds of additional British troops.
“We will always continue to make sure that our commander has the resources and flexibility necessary for KFOR to fulfil its mandate,” Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said on Friday. “We stand ready to make further adjustments to KFOR’s posture as required.”
KFOR is made up of about 4,500 troops.
In the face of Serbian discontent about the violence, Vučić has recently been forced to reform his political group and declare general and local elections. The presidency will not be up for election, however.
“We want to have a clean mandate in the future and to be a sovereign country,” Vučić said in a televised address on Friday. “The opposition demanded elections, they [succeeded], let them prepare.”