British troops are on standby after the US urged Serbia to withdraw its troops from the border with Kosovo following an “unprecedented” military build-up.
Nato has confirmed its peacekeeping force, known as KFOR, would be “increasing its presence”, after a battle between police and armed Serbs turned a quiet village in northern Kosovo into a war zone last Sunday.
The Ministry of Defence said it had transferred command of the 1st Battalion of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment to Nato so it could provide support if required. It said the battalion had recently arrived in the region for a long-planned training exercise.
Vjosa Osmani, Kosovo’s president, on Saturday told Channel 4 News that she “very much” welcomed the involvement of British and Nato troops “to deal with the very concerning situation we are dealing with”.
Russia, she said, was “helping Serbia in any way they can” and that Vladimir Putin’s fingerprints were all over the escalation in the region.
The clashes last week began when heavily armed Serb gunmen ambushed a patrol a few miles from the Serbian border, killing a Kosovo police officer. Several dozen assailants then barricaded themselves at an Orthodox monastery, sparking an hour-long firefight in which three gunmen were killed and three were arrested.
Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008 after a guerrilla uprising and 1999 Nato intervention, accuses Serbia of arming and supporting the Serb fighters.
The White House on Friday accused Serbia of deploying sophisticated tanks and artillery on the frontier.
“We are monitoring a large Serbian military deployment along the border with Kosovo,” said John Kirby, White House National Security Council spokesman.
“That includes an unprecedented staging of advanced Serbian artillery, tanks, mechanised infantry units. We believe that this is a very destabilising development.”
He added: “We are calling on Serbia to withdraw those forces from the border.”
He added that Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, had telephoned Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to urge “immediate de-escalation and a return to dialogue”.
Mr Vucic did not directly deny there had been a recent build-up but rejected claims that his country’s forces were on alert.
“I have denied untruths where they talk about the highest level of combat readiness of our forces, because I simply did not sign that and it is not accurate,” the Serbian leader told reporters. “We don’t even have half the troops we had two or three months ago.”
Kosovo’s government has accused Belgrade of backing the attack on Sunday, while a member of a major Kosovo Serb political party admitted to leading the gunmen, his lawyer said on Friday.
Serbia and the main Serb political group in Kosovo have proclaimed public mourning for the Serbs killed in the battle.
Mr Kirby said the attack had a “very high level of sophistication”, involving around 20 vehicles, “military-grade” weapons, equipment and training.
“It’s worrisome. It doesn’t look like just a bunch of guys who got together to do this,” he said.