30 March 2007

U.S. troops stage exercise in Kosovo before Serbian elections, U.N. status proposal

Associated Press, Friday, January 19, 2007 11:45 AM

MOGILA, Serbia-Dozens of U.S. peacekeepers on Friday jumped from helicopters and scattered across cornfields in eastern Kosovo, in a show of force before weekend elections in Serbia and an expected U.N. proposal for the future of the disputed province.

The troops, part of 16,000-strong NATO-led peacekeeping force that has patrolled Kosovo since mid-1999, conducted a drill to test their readiness to react should violence arise in the ethnically divided province.

The display of force included Black Hawk and Apache helicopters hovering above the village of Mogila, inhabited by both ethnic Albanians and Serbs, communities at odds over what the future of Kosovo should hold.

The purpose of the exercise "is to evaluate and test our capability to rapidly move our forces" anywhere within U.S.-controlled area, Lt. Col. Lapthe Flora said.

Kosovo has been administered by a U.N. 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 Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, 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 Martti 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.