PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Kosovo's president asked parliament on Tuesday to transform the country's lightly armed security forces into a regular army, a move immediately denounced by Serbian leaders who refuse to recognize Kosovo's independence.
Hashim Thaci submitted a draft law saying that "the transformation of Kosovo Security Force (KSF) into an army is a normal step of a sovereign and independent state."
"Such a legal initiative ... aims at protecting territorial sovereignty and integrity, preserving peace and defending the Republic of Kosovo's interests and also contributes in building up and protecting regional and global peace and stability," Thaci said in a statement.
The president regretted that the ethnic Serb minority has opposed the draft based on a stand "known to originate from Serbia."
Relations between Kosovo and Serbia have been tense in recent months following a series of frictions and incidents. Kosovo declared independence in 2008 and the move has been recognized by 114 countries but not by Belgrade.
"Serbia will never agree with the formation of the Kosovo's army," Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said at a rally in Mladenovac on Tuesday. Vucic is a candidate for president in elections next month.
"We know what Serbia is and what we will never give to anyone," said Vucic, according to the Serb online portal of Novi Magazin.
Serbia's Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said Belgrade opposes the formation of a Kosovo army and will use all political means available to prevent that. The official Tanjug news agency quoted Dacic as saying that Pristina has been making "unilateral moves" fueling instability in the region.
Dacic also said that if the Kosovo military is formed, it won't be allowed into Serb-dominated areas without the consent of the NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo, the report said.
The KSF, created in 2009, has about 4,000 regular and 2,500 reserve forces. The plan is to increase regular forces to 5,000 and reserves to 3,000.
Thaci also said international military forces deployed in Kosovo since 1999 will remain.
Serbia has about 50,000 people in its regular military, plus reserves.
Last month, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, in separate visits to Kosovo assured the country that the military alliance will maintain troops in the Balkan country "for as long as it's necessary."
About 4,500 troops from 31 countries have been deployed in Kosovo since June 1999, after NATO's 78-day air campaign to stop a bloody Serbian crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists.
"Kosovo is finally creating its army," Thaci said. "Such a legal natural transformation is fully constitutional and necessary so that the KSF formally starts the process of NATO membership."
Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, and Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia contributed to this story.
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.