Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo ramped up on Wednesday ahead of Kosovo's planned vote on the formation of a standing army.
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic told reporters that Belgrade is concerned that a regular army in Kosovo, which has a predominantly ethnic Albanian population, could be used to drive out the remaining Serbs from the country's north. That could, he added, provoke a Serb military intervention.
"I am hoping we would never have to use it [the army], but this is currently one of options on the table as we do not want to watch this ... ethnic cleansing," Brnabic said.
Kosovo's parliament is due to vote on transforming its 4,000-strong defense force into a regular army on December 14.
NATO also weighed in on the issue, with Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warning Kosovo that the move was "ill-timed" and could carry "serious repercussions."
Kosovo has relied heavily on NATO-led forces to ensure security since the end of a 1998-1999 war that saw the former Serbian province attempt to break away from Belgrade. Kosovo eventually declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a move Belgrade refuses to recognize.
Kosovo slams Serb 'lie'
Kosovo's prime minsiter, Ramush Haradinaj, rejected the notion that the army could be used against the Serb-dominated north as a "pure lie."
"The army will not be for the north of Kosovo;" he said, adding: "The army will be used to help NATO in Afghanistan and Iraq."
Should the parliament in the Kosovar capital of Pristina vote in favor of the army, it could still take years to transform the country's lightly-armed emergency force.
Furthermore, Balkans analysts said that any action by Serbia's 28,000-strong army against Kosovo is highly unlikely due to Serbia's aspirations to join the European Union.
Kosovo also wishes to join the EU, but Brussels has said that both countries must normalize relations and resolve territorial disputes as a condition for progress towards EU membership.
Serbia and Kosovo's already tense relations were soured further in late November when Pristina slapped Serbian goods with 100 percent tariffs.
Kosovo justified the move by saying it was revenge for Serbia's efforts to shut it out of global organizations, including Interpol, the international police body.
Serbian leaders said the new tariffs would halt trade with Kosovo and cost Serbia €42 million ($47.6 million) per month.
rs/amp (AFP, Reuters)
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