WASHINGTON - The United States urged Belgrade to pull its forces back from the border with Kosovo on Friday after detecting what it called an "unprecedented" Serbian military build-up.
Serbia deployed sophisticated tanks and artillery on the frontier after deadly clashes erupted at a monastery in northern Kosovo last week, the White House warned.
The violence -- in which a Kosovo police officer and three Serb gunmen were killed -- marked one of the gravest escalations for years in Kosovo, a former Serbian breakaway province.
"We are monitoring a large Serbian military deployment along the border with Kosovo," White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
"That includes an unprecedented staging of advanced Serbian artillery, tanks, mechanized infantry units. We believe that this is a very destabilizing development."
He added: "We are calling on Serbia to withdraw those forces from the border."
The build-up took place within the last week but its purpose was not yet clear, Kirby said.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had telephoned Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to urge "immediate deescalation and a return to dialogue," he added.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan also spoke with Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti and "expressed concern about Serbian military mobilizations," according to a readout of the call.
The pair also "discussed the EU-facilitated Dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, which Mr. Sullivan underscored was the only long-term solution to ensuring stability throughout Kosovo," the readout said.
Serbia's leader Vucic did not directly deny there had been a recent build-up but rejected claims that his country's forces were on alert.
"I have denied untruths where they talk about the highest level of combat readiness of our forces, because I simply did not sign that and it is not accurate," Vucic told reporters.
"We don't even have half the troops we had two or three months ago."
Serbia said Wednesday that the defense minister and head of the armed forces had gone to visit a "deployment zone" but gave no further details.
- 'Worrisome' -
The clashes on Sunday began when heavily armed Serb gunmen ambushed a patrol a few miles from the Serbian border, killing a Kosovo police officer.
Several dozen assailants then barricaded themselves at an Orthodox monastery, sparking an hour-long firefight in which three gunmen were killed and three were arrested.
Kosovo's government has accused Belgrade of backing the operation, while a member of a major Kosovo Serb political party admitted to leading the gunmen, his lawyer said Friday.
Kirby said the attack had a "very high level of sophistication", involving around 20 vehicles, "military-grade" weapons, equipment and training.
"It's worrisome. It doesn't look like just a bunch of guys who got together to do this," he said.
The NATO peacekeeping force known as KFOR would be "increasing its presence" following the attack, Kirby added.
In Brussels, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg confirmed that the US-led alliance was ready to boost the force to deal with the situation.
In the north of Kosovo, where the Serb minority is concentrated, KFOR has decided to "increase its presence and activity", added a NATO official who requested anonymity.
He added that KFOR was prepared to make "further adjustments" if necessary to enable it to fulfil its peacekeeping mandate.
Kosovo broke away from Serbia in a bloody war in 1998-99 and declared independence in 2008 -- a status Belgrade and Moscow have refused to recognise.
It has long seen strained relations between its ethnic Albanian majority and Serb minority, which have escalated in recent months in northern Kosovo.