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NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said the alliance is considering making permanent an increase in its military presence in Kosovo that came after violence erupted in northern Kosovo in September.

NATO announced an increase in its KFOR peacekeeping force days after a shoot-out on September 24 in Banjska, which left a Kosovar police officer and three of the attackers dead.

The increase showed how seriously the alliance took the violence, Stoltenberg said on November 20 at a joint news conference in Pristina with Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani.

“We are now reviewing whether we should have a more permanent increase to ensure that this doesn’t spiral out of control and create a new violent conflict in Kosovo or the wider region,” Stoltenberg said.

Tens of thousands of ethnic Serbs who live in northern Kosovo do not recognize central Kosovar institutions, and they have often clashed with Kosovar police and international peacekeepers. In May, violence erupted when Kosovar authorities tried to install mayors in some Serb-majority towns.

NATO reinforced KFOR, which normally has a troop strength of 4,500, by several hundred troops, sending additional forces from Britain and Romania. The current review includes peacekeeping forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Stoltenberg started a tour of the Western Balkans earlier on November 20.

He said those responsible for the attack on September 24 must face justice and he will convey this message during meetings scheduled to take place on November 21 in Belgrade.

“In September we saw a serious outbreak of violence in northern Kosovo, which raised concerns that a wider conflict could return to the Western Balkans,” he said, noting the violence in May in which 93 KFOR troops were injured, some seriously.

“Such violent attacks are unacceptable. Those responsible must face justice,” he said.

Stoltenberg arrived in Pristina from Sarajevo, where he warned about “secessionist and divisive rhetoric” sweeping across Bosnia and signs of “malign foreign interference,” namely from Russia.

The NATO chief said the allies “strongly support the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Bosnia amid growing concerns that Moscow is trying to bring instability to the region in an attempt to help shift attention away from its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Moscow’s interference “threatens to undermine stability and weaken reforms,” he said.

Since being ravaged by a civil war three decades ago during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia has struggled to overcome ethnic divisions. NATO played a major role in ending the 1992-95 Bosnian War and implementing a U.S.-sponsored peace plan that partitioned the country between a Serbian entity — Republika Srpska — and the Bosniak-Croat federation connected by a weak central government.

Bosnia’s stability has been further shaken in recent months by Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik, who increasingly has pursued nationalist and secessionist policies while seeking closer ties with Serbia and Russia.

“All political leaders must work to preserve unity, build national institutions, and achieve reconciliation. This is crucial for the stability and the security of the country,” Stoltenberg said.

“NATO has been committed to Bosnia-Herzegovina for many years. Your security matters for the Western Balkans region and it matters for Europe,” he added.

NATO invited Bosnia to join the Membership Action Plan in 2010. Though this is a first step toward admission to NATO, it does not prejudge any decision on future membership.

“We must reach political consensus and through dialogue get to stances of great importance for Bosnia when it comes to its cooperation with NATO,” said the chairwoman of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia, Borjana Kristo after meeting with Stoltenberg.

After scheduled stops in Serbia and North Macedonia on November 21, Stoltenberg is to participate in a meeting with the leaders of NATO members Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Slovenia on November 22.

With reporting by Reuters

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