BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — The Serbian army has cut the number of troops stationed on the border with Kosovo by nearly half, top Serbian military officials said on Monday, denying U.S. and other reports of a mass military buildup in the wake of a shooting over a week ago that killed four people and raised fears of instability in the volatile region.
Troop numbers are now at their “regular” level of some 4,500 soldiers, reduced from 8,350 in the wake of violence on Sept. 24 in northern Kosovo between heavily armed Serb gunmen and Kosovo police, the Serbian Army Chief of Staff Gen. Milan Mojsilovic said at a press conference.
He said troop numbers in the past had reached 14,000 soldiers and that unlike several times in the recent past, the army had not raised its combat readiness, so “from the military point of view I see no reason for such (critical) comments” by both U.S. and European Union officials.
Mojsilovic and Serbia’s Defense Minister Milos Vucevic also denied reports by Kosovo officials that the Serbian army trained and armed the group of some 30 men involved in the shootout in the northern Kosovo village of Banjska that left a Kosovo police officer and three insurgents dead.
Mojsilovic added the army training sometimes includes Serb reservists from Kosovo, a former Serbian territory whose 2008 declaration of independence Belgrade does not recognize, but that they were not part of the group that took part in the clashes.
Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti said on X, the former Twitter, that the “terrorists who carried out the attacks” recently trained at two bases in Serbia and that “the attackers enjoyed the full support & planning of the Serbian state” with a wider plan to “annex” the north of Kosovo.
Such accusations present an “intellectual insult,” Mojsilovic said in Belgrade.
The incident in Banjska has raised concern in the West of possible instability in the Balkans as war also rages in Ukraine. U.S. and EU officials have been trying to negotiate an agreement to normalize relations between Serbia and Kosovo following their 1998-99 war after which NATO intervened to force Serbia to pull out of the province.
In Brussels, European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said the military buildup near Kosovo was “very concerning and needs to stop immediately.” Stano urged a thorough investigation into the Kosovo incident with full cooperation from Serbia, a candidate nation for EU membership.
“There is no place for arms and (a) security forces buildup on the European continent,” said Stano. “All forces need to stand down.”
There was no immediate comment from NATO on the reports of the Serbian army pullout from the border zone. John Kirby, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, on Friday described the Serbian troop movement as an “unprecedented staging of advanced Serbian artillery, tanks and mechanized infantry units.”
NATO last week announced it was beefing up its peacekeeping presence in Kosovo by some 200 British troops in the wake of the crisis. Spokesman Dylan White signaled Sunday that this would not be all, saying “further reinforcements will follow from other Allies.”
KFOR already comprises around 4,500 troops from 27 nations as part of the peacekeeping mission established after the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999. An agreement that ended the conflict also defines relations with the Serbian military and its presence in the border area.
“Cooperation with KFOR is good and continuous,” said Vucevic. “The Serbian army believes additional presence of KFOR units (in Kosovo,) and primarily in the areas where Serbs live, would improve the security situation.
“If the army of the Republic of Serbia receives an order from the president, as the commander in chief, for its units to enter the territory of Kosovo and Metohija as part of the Republic of Serbia, the Army of Serbia would perform such a task efficiently, professionally and successfully,” Vucevic said, adding that KFOR would be informed in advance of such a decision.
Kosovo officials have said they are also investigating possible Russian involvement in the violence. Serbia is Russia’s main ally in Europe, and there are fears in the West that Moscow could try to stir trouble in the Balkans to avert attention from the war in Ukraine.
Serbia insists the insurgents were local ethnic Serbs fed up with constant harassment from the Kosovo government. Belgrade also claims at least one of the killed insurgents was executed after he was injured, rather than killed in the fighting.
Dusan Stojanovic contributed.