17 January 2007

No quick reduction of Kosovo troop levels: NATO

Reuters, Fri Nov 17, 2006 10:01 AM ET By Matt Robinson


PRILUZJE, Serbia (Reuters) - NATO will likely keep troop levels in Kosovo unchanged at around 17,000 for six months after a U.N. decision on the future of the province, the top commander in the territory said on Friday.


A decision on the 90-percent ethnic Albanian majority's demand for independence from Serbia is expected early next year, and could spark fresh ethnic violence.


Lieutenant-General Roland Kather of Germany said Kosovo, run by the United Nations since NATO's 1999 air war to halt the ethnic cleansing of Albanians, was entering "crucial times".


"We are in the final stages of the status talks and I'm absolutely sure we will have the final decision by early next year," Kather told Reuters in the muddy Serb enclave of Priluzje in central Kosovo.


"I'm absolutely sure we will maintain strength, organization and in particular manpower at least six months after a U.N. resolution," he said. "I think within the next year there will be no change at all."


He spoke after a French Puma helicopter dropped five parachutists of the French airborne pathfinders squad from 12,000 feet, landing on the muddy local football pitch. Kather said it was a display of resolve.




NATO commands around 17,000 troops from more than 30 nations in Kosovo. Sixty thousand soldiers entered Kosovo in 1999, after an 11-week NATO bombing campaign to drive out Serb forces accused of ethnic cleansing and atrocities in a two-year war with guerrillas.


Seven years later, U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari says he will submit his proposal on Kosovo's future after a Serbian parliamentary election on January 21. An initial year-end deadline has slipped to assuage Western powers worried a decision now might tip the polls in favor of popular ultranationalists.


Diplomats say Ahtisaari's blueprint, drafted after eight months of almost fruitless Serb-Albanian talks, will open the door to independence, but the fallout in Belgrade and among Kosovo's 100,000 remaining Serbs is less certain.


Some analysts fear a bid by the mainly Serb north to split the province in two could provoke an Albanian backlash against isolated Serb enclaves south of the Ibar River.


The NATO force, KFOR, was caught out in 2004 when Albanian rioters overran Serb enclaves, torching homes and churches. Nineteen people died and 4,000 fled their homes.


Stung by criticism, KFOR has overhauled its command and control structure, and provides riot-control training. But its performance in the 2004 riots dented the confidence of Serbs.


"We want to show the people that KFOR is not just hiding in camps," said Kather. "We want to show them our capabilities."