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PRISTINA, Kosovo -- Kosovo's parliament overwhelmingly approved legislation on Friday to form an army, prompting criticism from NATO and European Union officials and angering neighboring Serbia, which said it was prepared to use its own army to protect ethnic Serbs in Kosovo.

All 107 lawmakers present in Kosovo's 120-seat parliament, which is dominated by ethnic Albanian parties, voted to back the government's plan to transform the 3,000-strong, lightly armed Kosovo Security Force into an army that would grow to 5,000 active troops and 3,000 reservists in the next decade.

Kosovo Serb lawmakers did not attend the session.

Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia's president, said in the town of Trstenik in central Serbia on the eve of the vote, "Not a single act in the international law gives them the right to form an army."

"Everything that Pristina does -- and evidently it does it all with support of the U.S. and Britain -- is against the law," Vucic added.

Serbia's foreign minister, Ivica Dacic, said that Belgrade, the Serbian capital, would request an emergency United Nations Security Council session over what he said was "the grossest violation" of the resolution governing such a formation.

"It is the most direct threat to peace and stability in the region," Dacic said, according to Serbia's state-run Tanjug news agency.

Serbia's prime minister, Ana Brnabic, said the formation of a Kosovo army ran counter to efforts at stability in the volatile Balkans, according to The Associated Press. She added that she hoped Belgrade would not have to use any of its 28,000 troops to protect the Serbian minority in Kosovo, although "this is currently one of the options on the table."

Officials in Kosovo had sought to defuse anger ahead of the vote. "Our army comes in peace," Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj said in an interview Thursday. He accused officials in Belgrade of spreading false allegations through the government-controlled news media that a Kosovo army would be a threat to Serbs and its neighbors.

KFOR is the name of the NATO peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. There are about 5,000 such troops in Kosovo, including some 600 U.S. soldiers.

According to Kosovo's Constitution, drafted after the Serbian army and police forces were driven out in the summer of 1999, NATO is the only armed force allowed to operate in the country.

Its troops have disarmed and disbanded the ethnic Albanian guerrilla force known as the Kosovo Liberation Army, which had fought the Serb army in the 1989-99 war for independence.

Belgrade does not recognize the independence of Kosovo, a former Serbian province that it lost two decades ago after an uprising by ethnic Albanians and a campaign of NATO airstrikes led by the United States.

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO's secretary-general, had warned the government in Pristina, the Kosovo capital, that the country would "face serious consequences."

After the vote, he said in a statement on Twitter: "I regret that the decision to initiate a change of the Kosovo Security Force mandate was made despite the concerns expressed by NATO. All sides must ensure that today's decision will not further increase tensions in the region."

But the United States backed the formation of an army. The American ambassador to Kosovo, Philip Kosnett, previously said that it was "only natural for Kosovo as a sovereign, independent country to have a self-defense capability."

Kosnett said in a Twitter message on Friday, "The U.S. will be there with you." He noted that Kosovo's transition to an army would take 10 years.

The U.S. Embassy in Pristina said in a statement, "We call on the government of Kosovo to continue its close coordination with NATO allies and partners and to engage in outreach to minority communities now and throughout the yearslong process ahead."

The vote to form an army is one of a series of tit-for-tat moves that have brought to a standstill European Union-sponsored dialogue on normalizing relations between Serbia and Kosovo. Serbia successfully lobbied to keep Kosovo out of Interpol and has waged a campaign to persuade countries around the world to revoke recognition of statehood for Kosovo.

Kosovo's government has hit back, imposing a 100 percent tariff on Serbian goods, a move that could hurt its sluggish economy. Haradinaj has vowed that the tax will be lifted only in exchange for Belgrade's full recognition of statehood.

"Kosovo will stand for its right to defend itself," Haradinaj said, adding that "we had no choice but to stand up for ourselves."

A Section on 12/15/2018

Print Headline: Vote in Kosovo to form army raises Serbian ire

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