PRISTINA/MITROVICA: NATO is ready to ramp up troops in Kosovo if tensions among minority Serbs flare again, the deputy commander of the alliance's peacekeeping mission (KFOR) said on Tuesday (Sep 20) as a deadline in a spat with the government over car license plates approaches.
"We are vigilant and ready to act ... if we have an increase of tensions, but we can also draw on reserve forces ... that we can call in at short notice," Brigadier General Luca Piperni told reporters at KFOR headquarters in the capital Pristina.
Unrest among Kosovo Serbs over a requirement for them to use state-issued car number plates by Oct 31 has raised fears of conflict between Kosovo and Serbia, more than two decades after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bombed Serbia to end repression of Kosovo's Albanian majority. Kosovo Serbs in the north currently use old Serbian car plates that were issued before the 1999 war or later reproduced to look as the old car plates.
Serbia does not recognise Kosovo's independence, declared in 2008, and Serbs in northern Kosovo consider Belgrade, not Pristina, to be their capital. Around 3,700 NATO peacekeepers are still stationed in the former Serbian province to prevent violence between ethnic Albanians and Serbs.
Attempts to introduce Kosovo licence plates in heavily Serb northern Kosovo this summer led to clashes between police and local Serbs who erected roadblocks. The barricades were only dismantled when NATO peacekeepers stepped in and Kosovo agreed to postpone the licensing rule.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the calming of the situation and said it was now important to avoid any renewed escalation.
"Violence has no place in the region. KFOR remains vigilant, and stands ready to intervene should stability be jeopardised," he underlined.
Piperni described the situation as calm but fragile at the moment, and said NATO could not rule out fresh tensions or violence in the north as the Oct 31 deadline approaches.
"If the situation deteriorates, we are ready to intervene, we are ready to be in the middle between the protesters and the security organisations," he said, adding they have troops outside Kosovo that NATO could draw as reinforcements.
Speaking on the Austerlitz bridge in ethnically divided Mitrovica, site of some of the heaviest clashes between Serbs and Albanians in the past, Colonel Maurizio Mele said KFOR was engaging with city residents and, at the same time, well prepared to tackle any upcoming tensions.
He said his unit of carabinieri was guarding the bridge around the clock.
"I can assure you that we are ready to react in a very short time" should protests flare up in a way that demands action, Mele said as, in the background, mothers were strolling with their children across the bridge and stray dogs lay snoozing in the sun next to the soldiers' SUVs.