25 March 2007

NATO to maintain Kosovo troop levels into 2008

Reuters, Mon Jan 8, 2007 9:31 AM ET By Matt Robinson


PRISTINA, Serbia (Reuters) - NATO said on Monday it was unlikely to reduce troops levels in Kosovo until early 2008, until after a decision this year on the Albanian majority's demand for independence from Serbia.


A U.N. proposal on the fate of the breakaway province is due within weeks, almost eight years since the Western alliance drove out Serb forces.


NATO has 16,500 soldiers from 36 nations stationed in Kosovo, braced for possible violence if there is a fresh delay to the decision, or it falls short of Albanian expectations.


"We will maintain our mandate, our strength, our organization in 2007," Lieutenant-General Roland Kather, the German commander of NATO's Kosovo force, told a news conference.


"I think there will be no change until early 2008, and then we'll have to look at how far we have come."


U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari, who has mediated direct talks between Serbia and the Kosovo Albanians since February 2006, is due to present his proposal on Kosovo's future after Serbia holds a general election on January 21.


The Albanians, 90 percent of Kosovo's 2 million people, are growing impatient for a decision already postponed from end-2006 to accommodate the Serbian election.


Kather said he had "no indications" of any further delay. He warned against violence, and said he expected NATO troops to remain in the territory for "a couple of years."


Diplomats say the U.N. Security Council could vote on Ahtisaari's proposal, widely expected to open the door to independence supervised by the European Union, before mid-2007.


It would come eight years since NATO's first "humanitarian" air war wrested control of the province from Serbia, accused of turning a counter-insurgency war into a bloodbath. Ten thousand Albanians died and 800,000 fled during the 1998-99 war.


Around 50,000 NATO troops deployed and the United Nations took control of the territory.


Western powers are sympathetic to the Albanians' demand for their own state. But U.N. veto holder Russia is publicly backing Serbia, which says the amputation of Kosovo would violate international law and embolden separatists across the world.


Serbian President Boris Tadic said last week it would be better if Ahtisaari kept his proposal under wraps until after the formation of a new government in Serbia, saying an unfavorable outcome might bog down coalition talks.