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Turkey set to lead NATO force in Kosovo amid recent tensions

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The Turkish contingent will officially take command of the Kosovo Force (KFOR) on Tuesday as the NATO peacekeeping force remains in the Balkan country more than two decades after a war.

Turkey’s leadership comes at a time of escalating tensions between Kosovo and Serbia, with killings and clashes in the country’s north.

KFOR, established under a United Nations Security Council resolution to maintain security and stability, was first deployed to the country on June 12, 1999. A total of 27 countries, including six non-members of NATO, have soldiers in this force. Turkey is the second major contributor to the mission, which has more than 4,500 troops spread across Kosovo.

Turkey will succeed Italy, which assumed leadership of KFOR from Hungary in October 2022. Turkish Defense Ministry officials have said that KFOR is one of the most important missions to ensure peace and stability in the Balkans. Defense Ministry sources say Turkey is one of the key countries in the mission.

Türkiye is close relations with Kosovo due to cultural and historical ties, it is one of the countries to recognize its independence, approximately nine years after the Kosovo War between Albanian forces and Serbian forces between 1998 and 1999. It is part of the international mechanisms established to support this emerging country.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. The United States and most Western countries recognize this declaration, but Serbia does not and continues to claim the territory. Ethnic Serbs are Kosovo’s largest minority group and are entitled to 10 representatives serving as lawmakers in the country’s 120-seat parliament, as well as in government positions.

Defense Ministry sources said Turkey would not stop its support for KFOR. Last summer, Turkey deployed additional troops to Kosovo at the request of NATO’s Joint Forces Command.

Serbia and Kosovo are under international pressure to resolve the latest in a long series of crises between Kosovo’s government, dominated by ethnic Albanians, and ethnic Serbs, the majority in the north.

Violence erupted last summer after Kosovo authorities, backed by special police units, installed ethnic Albanian mayors in the offices of northern municipalities. Mayors were elected with a turnout of just 3.5% after Serbs boycotted local elections.

The outgoing KFOR commander called on Kosovo and Serbia to return to the negotiating table to resolve their issues to prevent violence like the recent shootout between masked Serbian gunmen and Kosovo police that left four people dead and raises tensions in the region.

Maj. Gen. Angelo Michele Ristuccia urged the two countries last Friday to “refrain from inflammatory and counterproductive rhetoric and help create the conditions necessary for lasting security in Kosovo and the region.” Ristuccia told a news conference that KFOR fully supports the European Union-facilitated dialogue to normalize their ties.

In February, the EU proposed a 10-point plan to end months of political crisis. Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic then approved it, but with some reservations that were not resolved. “If the parties do not come back to the table … and find a common solution and negotiate a political solution, I think this balance will become more fragile and unstable in the future,” Ristuccia said.

On September 24, around 30 Serbian gunmen killed a Kosovo police officer, then set up barricades in northern Kosovo before launching an hours-long shootout with Kosovo police. Three armed men were killed.

After the crisis, NATO increased its peacekeeping presence in Kosovo by adding around 200 British troops. Others should be deployed from Romania and other allies if the situation requires it, Ristuccia said.

NATO reported on Friday that the first contingent of 200 British soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment had arrived in Kosovo. Romania will send around a hundred additional soldiers to reinforce KFOR. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also said Berlin would consider increasing its current KFOR troop numbers next year. “These deployments are a prudent step to ensure that KFOR has the forces it needs to fulfill its UN mandate to maintain a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all residents of Kosovo,” he said. NATO said in a statement.

The EU-facilitated dialogue, which began in 2011, has yielded few results. Serbia and Kosovo have been at odds for decades. Their 1998-1999 war, which ended after a 78-day NATO bombing campaign forced Serbian forces to withdraw from Kosovo, left more than 10,000 people dead, most of them Albanians. of Kosovo.

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