Concerned about the risk of renewed unrest in Kosovo, North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies agreed Wednesday to maintain the strength of their 17,500-strong peacekeeping force in the province over the months ahead.
"This is a politically volatile situation," said Guenther Altenburg, NATO's assistant secretary general for political affairs. "You need to be prepared from the security point of view."
NATO officials fear talks on Kosovo's future expected next year could re-ignite violence between the pro-independence ethnic Albanian majority and the Serb minority, which wants a return to Serbian rule.
Kosovo has been administered by the U.N. since a NATO air campaign drove out Serbian troops in 1999 following a crackdown on the ethnic Albanian separatists.
In March, the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force was caught unawares by two-days of mob violence that targeted Serbs and left 19 people dead.
Altenburg said, however, he did not think the alliance needed to send additional troops ahead of final status talks.
He said the current force was now better prepared for any violence, since several nations had lifted restrictions that limited the movement of their troops around the country and prevented some soldiers being used for riot control.
"The mission will be in a pretty good shape to deal with the problem," Altenburg told reporters.
NATO officials said their concern about the coming months has been exacerbated by a Serb boycott of October elections in the province and the prospect that former Albanian rebel leader Ramush Haradinaj could become prime minister as a result of those elections, despite a recent interrogation by U.N. war crimes investigators.
Alliance foreign ministers are expected to confirm NATO's commitment to the peacekeeping mission during their year-end meeting in Brussels next week.