NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has expressed concerns about Kosovo's plans to transform the Balkan country's lightly armed security force into a national army, calling the step "ill-timed."
Stoltenberg made the comments following a meeting of the military alliance’s foreign ministers in Brussels on December 5, nine days before the Kosovar parliament is set to vote on whether to create a regular army, a move that the Serbian prime minister has warned trigger Serbia's armed intervention in the former province.
Belgrade and ethnic Serbs in the northern part of Kosovo have vehemently opposed the creation of a Kosovar military, saying it would violate UN resolutions and be used against the country’s Serb minority -- a claim denied by officials in Pristina.
Tensions between Pristina and Belgrade have also soared after the Kosovo government last month introduced a 100-percent tax on imports from Serbia in retaliation for what it said were the country's efforts to undermine the young republic on the international stage.
Relations between Pristina and Belgrade have been tense since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
Although more than 110 countries recognize Kosovo, Serbia does not.
Both Kosovo and Serbia have been told they must resolve their differences in order to make progress toward EU membership, but EU-sponsored normalization talks have been stop-and-go in recent months.
Speaking at a press conference in Brussels, Stoltenberg said Pristina’s moves to transform the Kosovo Security Force (KSF) into an army was "ill-timed, goes against the advice of many NATO Allies, and may have serious repercussions for Kosovo's future Euro-Atlantic integration."
The new tariff introduced by Pristina has created "new divisions," the NATO chief also said, adding that such steps "are making the EU-mediated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina even more difficult."
Stoltenberg called on both sides "to show restraint, to refrain from provocative steps and statements, and to make the necessary compromises so that they can move forward toward a better future."
In Belgrade, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic warned that her country "cannot stand aside and watch in silence while someone is conducting new ethnic cleansing" of Serbs.
Brnabic also said Serbia was losing 42 million euros ($48 million) a month because of Kosovo's tariff on Serbian products.
Her warning came a day after President Aleksandar Vucic said that "the irresponsible behavior of Pristina could lead to a catastrophe because Serbia cannot peacefully watch the destruction of the Serbian people."
Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Hardinaj on December 5 denied as "a pure lie" that the intentions of a new Kosovar army would be to occupy northern Kosovo.
"The army is not for the north. Our army is for Afghanistan and Iraq, to help those countries" in peacekeeping missions, Hardinaj said.
Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999 after NATO launched air strikes to stop the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians by Serb forces during a two-year counterinsurgency war.
Nearly two decades after the end of the conflict, the landlocked territory of 1.8 million people is still guarded by NATO troops.
The current KSF is a 2,500-strong force trained by NATO and tasked with crisis response, civil protection, and ordinance disposal.
In October, Kosovo's lawmakers gave preliminary approval to legislation expanding the size and competencies of the force in a session that was boycotted by ethnic Serb representatives.
The proposed laws envision the new security force will have 5,000 active soldiers and 3,000 reservists.
Parliament is set to vote again on the proposals on December 14.