Defense Minister Milos Vucevic said on Monday that Serbian troops stationed along the border with Kosovo were on full alert.
The development, ignoring NATO calls for a reduction in tensions, highlights the Balkan nation’s increasingly tense relationship with neighboring Kosovo due to recent shelling and blockades.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but Belgrade refused to recognize it and called on 120,000 Kosovo Serbs to challenge Pristina’s authority, especially in the north, where ethnic Serbs are in the majority.
The Serbian army has been placed on high alert several times in recent years due to tensions with Kosovo, most recently in November following claims that several drones had entered Serbian airspace from Kosovo.
On December 10, Serbs in northern Kosovo erected barricades to protest the arrest of a former police officer suspected of involvement in attacks on ethnic Albanian police officers.
According to the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force, the blockades coincided with an increase in reports of shootings, the latest of which occurred on Sunday.
“The President of Serbia … ordered the Serbian army to be at the highest level of combat readiness, that is, at the level of the use of armed force,” Defense Minister Milos Vucevic said in a statement.
He added that President Aleksandar Vučić also ordered an increase in the size of the special armed forces from the existing 1,500 to 5,000.
Serbian Interior Minister Bratislav Gasic said he “ordered the police and other security units to be put on full alert and placed under the command of the Army Chief of Staff in accordance with “their operational plan.”
In his statement, he said that he was acting on the orders of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić so that “every measure was taken to protect the Serbian people in Kosovo.”
These Vučić orders come after army commander General Milan Mojsilović was sent to the border with Kosovo on Sunday.
“The situation there is complex and complex,” Moysilovic said on Sunday.
It was not immediately clear what this order meant on the ground, as Serbian troops had been on alert on the border with Kosovo for some time.
Ignoring the authorities
Northern Kosovo has been especially tense since November, when hundreds of ethnic Serbs serving in the Kosovo police, as well as in the judiciary, such as judges and prosecutors, quit.
They were protesting a controversial decision to bar Serbs living in Kosovo from using Belgrade-issued license plates, a policy that Pristina eventually abandoned.
But the massive strikes have created a security vacuum in Kosovo.
Pristina attempted to schedule local elections for December 18 in Serb-majority municipalities, but they were delayed after the announcement sparked widespread outrage and the main Serbian political party said it would boycott.
Then, on 10 December, a former police officer was arrested, suspected of being involved in attacks on ethnic Albanian police officers who angered ethnic Serbs who erected barricades that paralyzed traffic around two border crossings.
Just hours after putting up the barricades, the Kosovo police said they had come under three consecutive gunfire on one of the roads leading to the border.
KFOR, which has increased its presence and patrols in the region in recent months, said the latest outbreak of violence occurred on Sunday, when shots were fired at Latvian soldiers adjoining the force, the Kosovo defense ministry tweeted.
KFOR said they were investigating the incident and added that there were “no injuries or property damage.”
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said last week that the situation with Kosovo “is on the brink of armed conflict.”
But the Kosovo Security Council, which met on Monday, blamed Serbia for the recent deterioration in relations.
He accused Serbia of “acting by all available means against the constitutional order of the Republic of Kosovo”.
Serbs make up about 120,000 of Kosovo’s 1.8 million predominantly ethnic Albanian population.
Kosovo remains a potential hotspot in the Balkans years after the 1998-1999 war ended with NATO intervention. Serbia does not recognize the independence of its former province declared in 2008, and Western attempts to find a solution have so far been unsuccessful.
“It is important for all participants to avoid any rhetoric or action that could cause tension and escalate the situation,” KFOR said in a statement.
“We expect all actors to refrain from provocative displays of force and seek the best solution to keep all communities safe.”
The fear of violence increased with the outbreak of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The United States and most European Union countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence, while Serbia has relied on Russia and China to keep its claim to the province.