PRISTINA – The NATO-led KFOR mission in Kosovo increased its patrols Monday on the border with Serbia in a bid to deescalate tensions between the two Balkan foes over a dispute about license plates.
KFOR, with around 4,000 troops from 28 countries, is led by NATO but is supported by the United Nations, the European Union and others. Its aim is to stave off lingering ethnic tensions between majority Kosovo Albanians and minority Kosovo Serbs after Kosovo broke away and became independent from Serbia in 2008.
“KFOR has increased the number and time length of the routine patrolling all around Kosovo, including northern Kosovo,” the force said in a statement.
The move comes a day after Serbia President Aleksandar Vucic warned NATO that Serbia will intervene in Kosovo if Kosovo Serbs come under serious threat.
The license plate issue between the two neighbors is not so much about license plates but about respecting each nation's sovereignty, so it has great symbolic power. Serbia, along with allies Russia and China, refuses to recognize Kosovo's independence as the United States and many other Western nations have done. It sees the Kosovo-Serbia border as temporary.
Kosovo Serbs have been blocking the border with trucks for a week since Kosovo decided to emulate Serbia and remove Serb license plates from cars coming into the country. Drivers must then buy temporary plates. Serbia removes Kosovo plates from cars coming in.
The U.S. Embassy in Serbia tweeted that American and Canadian defense officials had visited the Jarinje and Brnjak border crossings, the site of the protests, “to gain a better understanding of the situation.”
“They were glad to note KFOR was on site as a stabilizing factor,” the U.S. Embassy tweeted.
A U.S. embassy official in Kosovo told Gazeta Express there that Kosovo and Serbia representatives have agreed to meet in Brussels this week. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Gabriel Escobar will take part at the meeting.
The official said if the issues between Kosovo and Serbia are left unresolved they will hamper foreign investment and speed up brain drain, preventing the economies of both countries "from reaching their true potential.”
KFOR commander Gen-Maj. Franco Federici said besides the increased patrols, “KFOR has also conducted talks with all parties involved with the cessation of protests in northern Kosovo.”
Serbia raised its military alert last week, and Serbian military jets and helicopters were flying close to the border with Kosovo in an apparent show of force.
Last weekend, Kosovo government officials say a public building was set on fire and another was hit by grenades in what they described as criminal acts related to the protest by ethnic Serbs.
On Monday, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti repeated the offer that both countries drop the temporary license plate rule as a solution.
Vucic has described Kosovo’s recent license plate move as a “criminal action,” and he made the withdrawal of all Kosovar special police at the border a condition of EU-mediated negotiations.
The EU, NATO and the U.S. have urged Kosovo and Serbia to exercise restraint and refrain from unilateral actions.
Llazar Semini reported from Tirana, Albania. Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report from Belgrade, Serbia.