By Fatos Bytyci
PRISTINA (Reuters) - Kosovo is prepared to stand against a possible attack by Serbia as worsening strife with minority Serbs could result in a new armed conflict, Prime Minister Albin Kurti told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.
Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo flared again earlier this month when Pristina said it would oblige Serbs living in the north, who are backed by Belgrade and do not recognise Kosovo institutions, to start using license plates issued in Pristina.
The situation calmed after Kurti, under U.S. and European Union pressure, agreed to postpone the car number plates rule until Sept. 1 and NATO peacekeepers supervised the removal of roadblocks set up by Serbs.
"We should not exclude that these aggressive policies of Belgrade could also turn into an assault against Kosovo in one way or the other," Kurti told Reuters, speaking in English. “We are vigilant, but not afraid.
He added: “I am not saying they are going to attack us this week or next, but it would be totally irresponsible to exclude...the possibility of rising tensions and new conflicts."
The tiny landlocked Balkan country gained independence from Serbia in 2008, almost a decade after a guerrilla uprising against repressive Belgrade rule.
Ethnic Serbs account for 5 percent of Kosovo's 1.8 million population, which is 90 percent ethnic Albanian.
Some 50,000 of them live in north Kosovo, near the border with Serbia. The remaining 40,000 live south of the River Ibar and are using Kosovo government-issued license plates.
Serbia denies whipping up tensions and conflict in Kosovo, accusing Pristina of trampling on the rights of minority Serbs.
KURTI CRITICISES RUSSIA'S ROLE
Opposition parties in Pristina have accused Kurti of scaring investors by openly speaking of possible new conflict with Belgrade.
Kurti rejects those accusations. He accused Russia, which is Serbia's main ally and has vetoed Kosovo's bid for United Nations membership, of a role in stirring up fresh ethnic tensions in the former southern province of Serbia.
“Despotic (Russian) President (Vladimir) Putin is a man of war and he would have interest in spreading war because he wants to normalise war,” Kurti said, alluding to Russia's invasion of neighbouring Ukraine in February.
“We have our institutions and organs of security and defence, Kosovo is a state now, this is not the year 1998," Kurti said. "This is 2022 so we are much more prepared to defend our sovereignty, territorial integrity, to defend our democracy, rule of law, constitutionality, and to defend our progress.” Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic are expected to meet in Brussels for more talks on Aug. 18. Belgrade and Pristina are publicly committed to an EU-sponsored dialogue to resolve outstanding issues, but little progress has been made.Kosovo has joined EU and U.S. condemnation of Russia's actions in Ukraine and joined sanctions against Moscow. Serbia has not introduced sanctions against Russia despite its goal of joining the EU and harmonising foreign policy with the bloc.
Kosovo threw off Serbian domination in 1999 after NATO air strikes ended a brutal counter-insurgency by Serbian security forces. But Serbia legally still considers Kosovo an integral part of its territory and, with Moscow's help, has blocked Kosovo from membership in various international institutions.
NATO has around 3,700 troops stationed in Kosovo to maintain its fragile peace and last week it said it would intervene in line with its mandate if stability were jeopardised.
(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Mark Heinrich)