In recent months Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti has ratcheted up tensions with its ethnic Serbs in the disputed province, igniting fears of a renewed war as NATO announced troop increases for its peacekeeping force.
Just over a week ago, a deadly 12-hour gun battle at a Kosovo monastery — just the latest instance of ethnic turmoil escalating to violence in the region.
Kosovo has long been a hotbed of violence due to tensions between the country's ethnic Albanians, who control the disputed province, and its Serbian minority.
Serbia and its ethnic population had long been in a stasis with the controlling ethnic Albanians led by Kurti.
But in recent months Kurti has taken steps targeting the 50,000 Serbs living in the northern portion of the province.
Observers point to the fact Kurti has refused to implement a 2013 agreement Kosovo made with Belgrade, agreeing to allow for the formation of an Association of Serb Municipalities that would have given some autonomy to the majority Serb areas in the province.
A recent clash in northern Kosovo involved 30 armed Serbs barricading themselves inside a Serbian Orthodox monastery, where the group engaged in a lengthy standoff that left four people — three attackers and a Kosovo police officer — dead.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack or explained the motives of the gunmen, who locked themselves inside the monastery with priests and visiting pilgrims.
The clash swiftly garnered the attention of NATO, which boosted its troops in the volatile Balkan region.
On Friday the White House's National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, urged Serbian troops to pull back from the Kosovo border.
On Sunday Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic posted a video on Instagram denying the claims his military was massing on the border.
"A campaign of lies ... has been launched against our Serbia," he said.
Kosovo, once a historic Serb province that declared its independence in 2008, has been at odds with Serbia for decades. The 1998 war left more than 10,000 people dead, mostly Albanians in Kosovo.
Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008 but Belgrade has refused to recognize it.
While many Serbs consider Kosovo the birthplace of their nation, of the 1.8 million people who live in Kosovo, 92% are Albanian and only 6% are Serbian.
Kosovo's Kurti told The Associated Press that he welcomed the move by NATO.
"We need NATO because the border with Serbia is very long and the Serbian army has been recently strengthening its capacities and they have a lot of military equipment from both the Russian Federation and China," Kurti told the AP.
Serbia's president, Aleksandar Vucic, also welcomed the announcement by NATO.
He told The AP that he spoke to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and the men "agreed that de-escalation is needed," along with a greater role for KFOR, the peacekeeping force in Kosovo.
Serbia claims that at least one of the three Serbs killed during the siege was "liquidated" after surrendering and promised that Serbia would "prosecute the cold-blooded killers."
Vucic refused to call the insurgents "terrorists."
Instead, he said they are people who rebelled to "protect their homes."
"I will not call the Serbs terrorists," Vucic said. "I don't care what anyone in the world thinks."
Serbs have long pointed to a series of violent attacks on its ethnic minority by the ruling ethnic Albanians.
Serbian media reported that Kosovo police raided a hospital and a restaurant in the Serb-dominated part of the town of Mitrovica on Friday, as well as several locations in other towns. The local Kossev news agency reported that officers confiscated several vehicles.
Kosovo has accused Serbia of being directly involved in clashes in Banjska, which Belgrade denies.
There have been no reports on how many additional peacekeeping troops NATO will deploy to Kosovo.
In June, 700 troops were sent from Turkey after dozens of KFOR personnel were hurt, many badly, in riots in northern Kosovo.
"We will always continue to make sure that our commander has the resources and flexibility necessary for KFOR to fulfill its mandate," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement. "We stand ready to make further adjustments to KFOR's posture as required."
KFOR, which operates under a U.N. mandate, currently consists of around 4,500 troops from 27 NATO and partner countries.
The uptick in violence comes as the European Union and U.S. officials have pushed for a deal that would normalize ties between Serbia and Kosovo.
In February, Kurti and Vucic both gave their approval to a 10-point EU plan for normalizing relations, but talks have collapsed.
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