BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Tensions soared in the Balkans a day before Kosovo's parliament is set to approve the formation of an army, with Serbia warning Thursday that the move would threaten peace in the war-scarred region.
Kosovo's parliament is expected to pass legislation Friday that would turn an existing 4,000-strong security force into an expanded, lightly armed army. Kosovo declared independence in 2008 from Serbia, which does not recognize the assertion of statehood.
After talks with the head of the U.N. mission in Kosovo, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic described Kosovo's decision as a "new provocative and one-sided measure" that raises Serbia's concerns for the future of Serbs in Kosovo.
Vucic said Serbia will "do its best to preserve peace and stability," but warned the "situation will be considerably worsened" if Kosovo goes ahead with the decision on Friday.
"We are not going to beat the war drums, but we will not allow anyone to purge and humiliate the Kosovo Serbs," Vucic said.
Serbia alleges the army's main purpose would be to ethnically cleanse Kosovo's Serbian-dominated north, a claim strongly denied by Pristina.
Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, wearing a military jacket, visited army barracks near the capital of Pristina to assure "all the communities in Kosovo, especially the Serb one" that the future army "will continue to serve them without any ethnic distinction."
Serbia lost control of Kosovo after a 1998-99 war and NATO airstrikes that ended Belgrade's bloody crackdown against Kosovo Albanians. The United States and most of the West recognize Kosovo as an independent country, but Serbia and its allies Russia and China do not.
Adding to tensions among Serbs ahead of the Friday vote, Kosovo's Security Forces held exercises in the south and NATO-led peacekeepers deployed a convoy of combat vehicles in the north of Kosovo.
The deployment of peacekeepers was seen as a provocation by Kosovo Serbs, but the so-called KFOR mission said it was a routine exercise.
"It's just a regular training, exercise. KFOR troops training to keep readiness to be rapidly deployed all over Kosovo as it is foreseen by our mandate," said the mission's spokesman, Vincenzo Grasso.
He also sought to downplay the importance of lawmakers approving the creation of an army.
"Whatever will be decided tomorrow will not change the situation in one day," he said.
Llazar Semini from Tirana, Albania, and Jovana Gec, from Belgrade, Serbia, contributed.