US peacekeepers ready to prevent violence in north Kosovo, commander says

By Thomson Reuters Feb 16, 2024 | 7:16 AM

By Fatos Bytyci

LEPOSAVIC, Kosovo (Reuters) – U.S. peacekeeping troops in Kosovo are well equipped and stand ready to prevent violence in the country’s ethnically divided north, often the scene of armed clashes in which most recently a policeman was killed, a commander told Reuters.

NATO has reinforced its presence with another 1,000 troops after violence last September during which the policeman was killed in a shootout between Kosovo police and gunmen who entered from Serbia.

More than 570 U.S. soldiers serve under the NATO-led mission, which in total has around 4,500 troops deployed.

“We are well prepared, well trained and equipped to react to anything that could happen here right now,” Colonel Ross Walker, commander of U.S. soldiers from the Texas Army National Guard, told Reuters in an interview.

“Even though we stand ready to react to anything, our wish and desire is to always do things through a peaceful dialogue first.”

Some of the U.S. soldiers are based at Nothing Hill camp close to the northern town of Leposavic and patrol routes that link both Kosovo and Serbia.

They park their unarmoured white trucks close to the border with Serbia and then walk near the metal bars that until recently held signs signalling the border line between Kosovo and Serbia.

They patrol on foot and carry only pistols, a sign that things have been calm recently.

Nevertheless, in December Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti said armed men backed by Serbian security agencies were being trained to launch more attacks in his country, which Serbia denied.

Western diplomats and some analysts warn that the most recent tensions over Kosovo’s decision to ban the use of the Serbian dinar could further fuel tension in the north, where some 50,000 Serbs refuse to recognise the Pristina government and see Belgrade as their capital.

Pristina’s central bank on Feb. 1 said the Serbian dinar used to pay pensions, social benefits and finance education and the healthcare system in Serb areas was illegal.

Kurti said the measure was to stop cash crossing the border in bags and instead get money moving through bank accounts and then withdrawn in officially recognised euros.

Local media reported that a white van carrying cash in dinar was stopped on Wednesday at the border entering Kosovo, prompting concern among the Serb population over whether they would receive their pension payments.

Western countries have called on Kosovo to delay implementation of the decision to ban the dinar. The move has angered the United States, Kosovo’s main ally.

“If we are not treated as a partner we may not treat him (Kurti) as a partner,” Jim O’Brien, the U.S. State Department’s Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, told Voice of America this week.

(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Ivana Sekularac and Hugh Lawson)