Forces from NATO allies, other countries hold military exercises in Western Balkans

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Forces from NATO member nations and other countries on Monday launched joint military exercises in Albania and other Balkan states.

The two-week Immediate Response maneuvers - the second of three such drills linked to the DEFENDER 23 multi-national joint exercise - involves some 2,800 U.S. troops and 7,000 soldiers from other nations including Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece and Turkey.

A statement said DEFENDER 23 is geared toward building readiness and interoperability between U.S. and NATO allies and partners while demonstrating the U.S. military’s ability to rapidly deploy troops and equipment to Europe.

“This assurance of commitment to our Allies deters those who would threaten the peace of Europe,” according to the statement.

Albanian President Bajram Begaj said Tirana “is committed in its mission as a stabilizing factor in the Balkans and exporter of security in the region and wider.”

NATO member Albania hosted the joint exercise in 2021 - the first such large-scale drills held in the Western Balkans since World War II.

Some drills are also being held in neighboring Kosovo which isn’t yet a member of NATO, although the Kosovar government has set European Union membership as a main priority.

Kosovo’s 2008 independence has been recognized by the United States and most of the Western powers but not by Serbia and its main allies Russia and China.