KFOR prepared for rise in tensions as Serb vote nears
Peacekeepers in Kosovo are preparing for a possible rise in tensions over Sunday’s election in neighboring Serbia, in which ethnic Serbs in Kosovo will be eligible to vote.
About 700 German and Austrian soldiers from the NATO reserves deployed last week to join the 6,200-strong Kosovo Force, or KFOR, which polices borders and mans garrisons in Kosovo, a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008. Although the United States and dozens of other countries recognize Kosovo’s independence, Serbia does not.
“All KFOR is preparing for, expecting, a higher level of tensions,” a spokesman for KFOR, German Maj. Marc Stümmler, said.
Efforts by Serbia to organize its parliamentary and presidential elections for ethnic Serbs in neighboring Kosovo generated controversy after the Kosovo government refused any role played by Belgrade or local Serb officials. Serbs in some northern communities in Kosovo also vowed to hold local elections, according to news reports.
A compromise appeared to be reached Monday, after the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe agreed to organize balloting for the parliamentary and presidential elections for eligible voters in Kosovo.
NATO officials hope the deal will stall any flare-ups in the country. In a statement Friday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen expressed confidence in international forces and encouraged calm in the country.
“I strongly urge all leaders and all communities to show restraint during the voting process,” he said in the statement. “In this critical period, it is important to avoid any unilateral actions or statements that can raise tensions.”
Ethnic Serbs represent a minority of Kosovo’s largely ethnic Albanian population.
Tensions flared last summer after Serbs erected barriers on roads in Kosovo’s north in a dispute over border crossings into Serbia, leading to violent confrontations with local police and a tense standoff with NATO peacekeepers.
A U.S. battle group of 15 National Guard units, or more than 800 guardsmen, is stationed in the country’s southeast, part of which borders Serbia. Sgt. 1st Class Jim Wagner, a spokesman for the battle group, wrote in an email that while the recent compromise should set all sides at ease in the country, U.S. forces remain prepared.
“[T]he US, along with the other countries serving in Kosovo, is going to do what it takes to ensure a safe and secure environment for all residents in Kosovo, regardless of ethnicity,” he wrote.