NATO has announced it will increase its peacekeeping force in Kosovo if there is an escalation of tensions with neighbouring Serbia. This as EU-brokered talks between Pristina and Belgrade get underway in Brussels.
Following talks with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Brussels on Wednesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced: "We have now a significant mission, a military presence in Kosovo close to 4,000 troops … [and] if needed, we will move forces, deploy them where needed and increase our presence. We have already increased the presence in the north. We are ready to do more."
Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo flared up earlier this month when Pristina said it would oblige Serbs living in the north – who are backed by Belgrade and do not recognise Kosovar institutions – to start using car license plates issued in Pristina.
The situation calmed after Kosovo's Prime Minister Albin Kurti, under US and European Union pressure, agreed to postpone the number plates rule until 1 September and NATO peacekeepers oversaw the removal of roadblocks set up by Serbs.
However, Vucic told the news conference at NATO that talks with Kurti this Thursday – which have been facilitated by the EU – would be difficult because the two sides disagree on almost everything.
Kosovo wary of Russian influence
Kurti, who met Stoltenberg later, underlined Kosovo's resolve to become a NATO member.
"The threats, risks and challenges that NATO faces in the current security environment are felt by our country as well," he told reporters, linking the problems to Russia's influence in Serbia.
"Kosovo's institutions and citizens in the current situation have reason to be vigilant about [the] destructive approach of our northern neighbour towards Kosovo and the region in general under Russia's detrimental agenda for Europe and the Balkans."
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De-escalation of old hostilities
Kosovo won independence from Serbia in 2008, almost a decade after a guerrilla uprising against repressive Belgrade rule.
Serbia still considers Kosovo an integral part of its territory.
It denies whipping up tensions and conflict there, and accuses Pristina of trampling on the rights of minority Serbs.
Ethnic Serbs account for 5 percent of Kosovo's 1.8 million population, which is 90 percent ethnic Albanian.
Vucic said Serbia wanted to avoid any escalation of the situation, but it was important to understand that there is "a new generation of young men" who see Kosovo as Serbian territory and will no longer "put up with the terror".