BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo have rejected a demand from Serbia that its security forces be allowed to return to the breakaway province amid ongoing tensions, Serbia's president said Sunday.
The KFOR peacekeepers, who deployed in Kosovo in 1999 after the NATO alliance's bombing forced the Serbian army and police out of the territory, said in their response that there's no need for the return of the Serbian forces, President Aleksandar Vucic said.
Serbia made its demand in mid-December when tensions in Kosovo soared over the arrest of an ethnic Serb former police officer that led to roadblocks in the north of the country where ethnic Serbs mostly live.
Those tensions were later defused amid European Union and U.S. efforts to push forward an EU-mediated dialogue between the former Balkan war foes. Serbia doesn't recognize Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence and the dispute remains a potential flashpoint.
In the most recent incident, an off-duty Kosovo security officer shot and wounded two ethnic Serbs last week in central Kosovo, including an 11-year-old boy. The man was arrested after the incident near the town of Strpce, Kosovo police said.
Hundreds of people protested on Sunday in Strpce because of the shooting, demanding more security for the tens of thousands of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo. Another group of several hundred people gathered in the northern town of Mitrovica, in a rare protest against Vucic's policies that they say are too conciliatory toward Kosovo.
The conflict in Kosovo erupted when separatist ethnic Albanians launched a rebellion against Serbia's rule and Belgrade responded with a brutal crackdown that prompted the NATO intervention. About 13,000 people died in the conflict, mostly ethnic Albanians.
Serbia insists that hundreds of its security forces have the right to redeploy under a U.N. resolution that followed the war. Belgrade has said the return of its troops to Kosovo would help lower tensions, a claim vehemently rejected by Kosovo and Western officials.
Vucic said KFOR's response to Serbia's demand was expected because of Western backing for Kosovo's independence. Serbia has relied on Russia and China in its bid to retain its claim to its former province, which many Serbs consider the nation's heartland.
The West "was not worried about the wounding of the Serb boys,” Vucic complained on pro-government Pink television. “I did not expect a different answer from KFOR.”
Serbia and Kosovo have been told they must normalize relations if they want to advance toward EU membership. A senior U.S. delegation is set to visit the region next week to help push forward the deadlocked EU-mediated talks.