Turkey Takes Over NATO Kosovo Mission as Serbia Tensions Bubble

Turkey will assume command of the NATO-led force in Kosovo at a critical time as tensions flare between the Balkan nation and neighboring Serbia.

(Bloomberg) — Turkey will assume command of the NATO-led force in Kosovo at a critical time as tensions flare between the Balkan nation and neighboring Serbia.

Turkey, which has the largest army in NATO after the US, will take over leadership of the mission from Italy on Oct. 10, Rear Admiral Zeki Akturk, the spokesman of Turkey’s Defense Ministry, said Thursday. The country has relations with both sides, having developed trade ties with Serbia while supplying combat drones to predominantly Muslim ally Kosovo.

Turkey sees President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s personal rapport with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic as potentially crucial in preventing an escalation of violence following last week’s deadly shootout in Kosovo, according to people familiar with the matter. The US has urged Serbia to pull back its troops from the border and hold accountable those responsible for the violence, which killed a Kosovar police officer and three other people. 

The European Union has also voiced concern over the worst clash between the two countries since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, almost a decade after a war there ended with NATO driving out Serb forces.

Read More: Kosovo Identifies Serb Official After Shootout as Tensions Flare

Turkey plans to urge Serbia and Kosovo to refrain from actions that could squander years of efforts to normalize ties between the neighbors, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Major General Ozkan Ulutas of the Turkish army arrived in Kosovo on Tuesday to assume the mission’s command, which includes about a 600-strong Turkish force. 

The leadership follows Turkey’s contributions to similar NATO efforts and highlights historic and ethnic bonds with the Balkans, once part of the Ottoman Empire. The NATO military alliance has stationed peace keepers there since the 1990s war. The group has about 3,500 troops in Kosovo now, down from some 50,000 at the peak of its presence in the country. 

Turkey has traditionally backed Kosovo, with which it shares religious and ethnic bonds, and recently sold the country six of its Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat aircraft also used by Ukraine to fight Russian forces, according to the people familiar with the matter. 

Read More: War Drones Help Erdogan Expand Turkey’s Global Power

Turkish companies use Serbia as a production base for exports to Europe and Russia, said the people, adding that several businesses including in the automotive and textile sectors have set up business in Serbia, where there are dozens of branches of Turkey’s state lender Halkbank. Erdogan could visit Belgrade as part of a tour to the region in coming months, the people said.

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