Serbia has pulled some of its troops back from the Kosovo border after US warnings that it could face punitive measures for what the White House called an “unprecedented” buildup of Serbian troops and armour.
The Serbian president, Aleksandar Vu?i?, announced he had ordered troops to be pulled back. In a statement to the Financial Times, he said any military action would be counterproductive, adding “Serbia does not want war”.
A Kosovan government official confirmed a partial Serbian withdrawal on Saturday, with the removal of troops and equipment that had been moved into positions around the border in the past five days, leaving behind a still significant force that is permanently based in the area.
The withdrawal followed a public declaration of concern by the White House, a stern call to Vu?i? from the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and the reinforcement of the Nato peacekeeping force in Kosovo, Kfor, with hundreds of British troops.
In his conversation with Vu?i?, Blinken called for “??immediate de-escalation” and a return to his previous agreement to normalise relations with Kosovo.
According to Vu?i?, Blinken said there could be US measures against Serbia if he did not comply.
“I said you’re a superpower and you can do or say what you want, but I am completely against that. I think it would be very bad,” the Serbian president told the Tanjug press agency.
On Saturday evening, Germany’s ambassador to the US, Andreas Michaelis, described the situation as “another powder keg in Europe” and a danger that should be taken seriously.
Michaelis said on social media there had been “very close cooperation between Germany and the US in the last days and hours” which had been “absolutely key to avoiding further escalation”.
“Serbia needs to act now,” Michaelis said.
The US warnings came at the end of a week of high tension, beginning with an ambush by well-armed Serb paramilitaries on a Kosovan police patrol, in which a policeman was killed. Three Serb gunmen were killed in the ensuing battle, near the village of Banjska.
The armed group was led by Milan Radoi?i?, the deputy leader of Serb List, a Belgrade-backed party representing the Serb minority in northern Kosovo. Through a lawyer, Radoi?i? said he was responsible for the shootout with Kosovan police, but did not explain the source of the modern weapons Serb paramilitaries had been carrying.
The Kosovan government produced a document purporting to show that a grenade launcher the group had been carrying had been given to them by the Serbian army, and officials in Pristina expressed concern Sunday’s gunfight was intended to provide a pretext for a Serbian military intervention in northern Kosovo.
Serbia declared a day of mourning for the three dead Kosovo Serbs, and Vu?i? falsely claimed Kosovo forces were conducting a campaign of “brutal ethnic cleansing” against ethnic Serbs.
“This reaction by the White House seems similar to the warnings we saw before Russian troops entered Ukraine,” Donika Emini, the executive director of the Kosovan NGO alliance CiviKos Platform, said, adding that it indicated “conflict is inevitable”.
Emini said one possible Serbian objective was to force a withdrawal of Kosovan police from northern Kosovo, and oblige Kfor to take back full security control in the flashpoint region, further eroding the independence and sovereignty of the former Serbian province.
The UK Ministry of Defence announced on Friday it was transferring to Kfor command a battalion of the Royal Princess of Wales regiment, which is in the region for a training exercise, to provide support if required.