Moves by Kosovo to build itself an army have angered neighbouring Serbia, which has floated the idea of military intervention.
In a vote set for Friday, Kosovo's 120-seat parliament is expected to easily approve draft government-submitted legislation to turn its existing 4,000-strong paramilitary unit — Kosovo Security Force (KSF) — into an expanded, lightly-armed army.
Belgrade does not recognise the independence of Kosovo, a landlocked former Serbian province lost two decades ago after an uprising by ethnic Albanians and a campaign of NATO airstrikes.
Officials in Pristina have denied claims from Serbia that the proposed army's main purpose would be to ethnically cleanse Kosovo's Serbian-dominated north.
Kosovan officials said the new army will essentially be a security force which handles crisis response and civil protection operations – essentially what the KSF does currently.
They said its main tasks would be search and rescue operations, explosive ordnance disposal, firefighting and hazardous material disposal.
Lieutenant Colonel Sylejman Cakaj was one of the commanders of the Kosovo Albanian paramilitary unit Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) during the war with Serbia in 1999. He is now a battalion commander in the KSF, charged with training soldiers.
Speaking to AP, Cakaj said the formation of a new Kosovan army is not intended to harm anyone, especially Serbs in Kosovo, but rather to serve all of Kosovo's citizens and to join international peace-keeping missions.
Cakaj said that some 4% of the KSF is made up of ethnic Serbs, who would also be transferred to the new Kosovo Army.
He said: "We are all seeing geo-strategic changes in the world, towards the creation of a somewhat new world order. I believe it is necessary that following the consolidation of its statehood, Kosovo has its army too ... the one that we are entitled to as representatives of the people, to be in control of our country."
The new army will have a €98 million annual budget, with 5,000 troops armed with light infantry weapons and 3,000 reservists.
A UN Security Council resolution from 1999 specifies that Kosovo is under the authority of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, with security provided by the NATO-led peacekeepers. NATO and the US have helped train the current KSF.
The US backs formation of the new army, starting with a change to the country's constitution, which currently makes no reference to an army.
However, this would require support from ethnic Serbian lawmakers, who strongly oppose the move.
Long-simmering tensions soared after Kosovo slapped a 100% tax on Serb imports last month – in apparent retaliation after Serbian lobbying thwarted Kosovo's bid to join international police organisation Interpol.
Serbian officials say the tariffs are a virtual embargo designed to force Kosovo's remaining ethnic Serbs, chief consumers of the affected goods, out of the country. The EU, the US and Russia have all urged Kosovo to lift the tariffs.
Nebojsa Jovic, former Serbian military commander, said: ''What they [Kosovo Albanians] should know from our history is that there was never a 'small war' in these territories. Every time there was a conflict in Serbia, Kosovo and Metohija [a region of Kosovo], it turned into a war on a bigger scale and none of us here want this.
"But if Serbia decides to stand back and watch this happen, we will definitely not peacefully stand aside. We will not allow them to, figuratively speaking, 'come over here with knives'.
"As we said in the past, when they previously announced the formation of their army, it's not a problem. You form [your] army, and we will conduct massive mobilisation of everyone in the [Serbian] north. All of the male population, from 23 to 63 years of age, will be picked up for service. Not to attack anyone, only to defend ourselves."
Although Serbia may have increased its sabre-rattling it is unlikely to take military action, which would trigger a direct confrontation with some 4,600 NATO-led peacekeepers, including US troops, stationed in Kosovo since 1999. It would also almost certainly prompt Western sanctions.
Igor Simic, the leader of Serbians in Northern Mitrovica, said: ''I will be very direct. Even if they use weapons and come here to attack unarmed Serb people, we will stand barehanded in front of them. We are not attacking anyone – we are just defending our right to stay and live here, in our ancient homeland."
The Kosovo War of 1998-99 left more than 10,000 people dead. Serbia's bloody crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists and civilians in Kosovo prompted NATO airstrikes.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008 and the US and most of the West recognise it, while Russia and China do not.