30 March 2007

Unease in Kosovo, but no violence over status, says U.S. commander

Associated Press, Wednesday, January 17, 2007 7:40 AM

SOJEVO, Serbia-The commander of U.S. peacekeepers in Kosovo said Wednesday he expected unease when a U.N. envoy makes a proposal on whether the province should become independent, but said he did not believe violence was imminent.

Brig. Gen. Douglas Earhart, who is in charge of some 1,500 U.S. troops deployed in eastern Kosovo, said he believed Martti Ahtisaari's report "will be very broad."

"Most likely there will be folks that are not happy with parts of it, there will be folks that will be very happy with some parts probably," he told The Associated Press in an interview.

"But, with any compromise situation, no one will get everything that they want," he added.

Speaking outside the sprawling U.S. military base Camp Bondsteel, Earhart said he is appealing to people to be patient and tolerant to allow for the process to evolve.

"There's been a lot of personal investment by citizens in this province and all that investment will be lost if folks just turn to violence," he said. "I've got to ask myself 'What will that violence gain?', and I just can't see it."

Kosovo has been administered by a United Nations mission since mid-1999 following NATO's air war that halted Serb forces' crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.

The province's status has been a point of dispute between ethnic Albanians in Kosovo who are seeking to secede and Serbia, which offers broad autonomy but wants to keep the province within its borders.

With the two sides deeply divided, chief U.N. envoy Ahtisaari, who facilitated yearlong talks on the issue, is set to present his recommendations following Sunday's parliamentary election in Serbia.

Diplomats say the province will likely get some form of independence, supervised by an international presence, while NATO is set to keep troops in Kosovo for several years.

There have been fears that Ahtisaari's report could spark renewed violence between the ethnic Albanian majority and the Serb minority.

Earhart played down those fears, saying his forces are anticipating small groups of troublemakers and pledged that the peacekeeping force was prepared to stave off any violence that may arise.

U.S. troops in Kosovo are part of the NATO-led peacekeeping force which has patrolled the province for nearly eight years. The force is down to 16,000 troops from the original 50,000.

U.S.-controlled eastern Kosovo has several ethnically mixed villages and borders Serbia.

"This mission in a lot of ways demonstrates where we'd like to be in Iraq and Afghanistan," Earhart said.