By Fatos Bytyci
PRISTINA (Reuters) - Parliament in Kosovo, which relies on NATO troops for its protection, voted on Thursday to set up a 5,000-strong national army though its Serb minority said the move was illegal.
Serb deputies, backed by Belgrade which does not recognize Kosovo's independence, have blocked any such move in the past saying creation of a national army required a change to the constitution.
The U.S.-led NATO alliance, which has 4,000 troops in the Balkan country, has also in the past urged Kosovo not to create a national army unless the constitution was amended with the support of the Serb minority.
But three laws, promoted by the Kosovo government and passed on a first reading by a parliamentary vote on Thursday, upgraded the mandate of the lightly-armed domestic Kosovo Security Force (KSF) to transform into an army - something which the government said bypassed the need to make changes to the constitution.
The nationalist-dominated government tried to create a national army last year but were stymied by the refusal of Serb politicians to agree to a change in the constitution.
The draft laws were supported on Thursday by 98 deputies in the 120-seat parliament, though the vote was boycotted by the legislature's 11 Serb deputies. Approval in a second reading in a few days time is required for the laws to be passed.
"The three laws have one task, to protect the territorial integrity of Kosovo, to protect the citizens of all communities in Kosovo," Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj said before the vote.
The landlocked Balkan territory of 1.8 million, which declared independence in 2008, is still guarded by stationed NATO troops nearly two decades after the end of the war.
NATO moved into the fledgling state in June 1999 following weeks of air strikes to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanian civilians by Serbian forces fighting a two-year counter-insurgency after the break-up of Yugoslavia.
The United States and most of the European Union member states recognize Kosovo. But objections by permanent Security Council members Russia and China which back Serbia in not accepting Kosovo's statehood prevent it from being a member of the United Nations.
The draft laws envisage an army of 5,000 active soldiers and 3,000 reservists. The present KSF security force is a lightly armed, 2,500-strong force trained by NATO and tasked with crisis response, civil protection and ordinance disposal.
NATO says it has no plans to leave the territory just now, but it suggested that any change to the status of the KSF might lead to a reduction in its forces there.
"Any change in the structure, mandate and mission of the Kosovo Security Forces is for the Kosovo authorities to decide," a NATO official told Reuters in an e-mailed answer.
"NATO supports the Kosovo Security Force under its current mandate. Should this mandate evolve, the North Atlantic Council will have to re-examine the level of NATO’s engagement in Kosovo. We cannot predict decisions by the North Atlantic Council."
(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Richard Balmforth)