Thursday, March 17, 2005

Peace holds in U.S.-patrolled sector of Kosovo

By Ben Murray, Stars and Stripes
European edition, Thursday, March 17, 2005

Kosovar civilians in the American-patrolled sector of the province have so far heeded calls for calm in response to a pair of shake-ups at the top of their interim government, the new U.S. commander in the area said Tuesday.

The resignation of Kosovo’s prime minister and an attack on its president over the past week have not outwardly disrupted the tenuous peace in the U.S. portion of the beleaguered Balkan region, said Brig. Gen. William Wade, commander of Multinational Brigade East.

“Things remain very calm throughout the [area of operations],” Wade said in a telephone interview. “At this point, all the people of Kosovo seem to be behaving themselves very well.”

Wade took command of the U.S. portion of the NATO peacekeeping operation two days before events began to unfold in Kosovo on March 8, when then-Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj stepped down from his post after being indicted by a U.N. tribunal on 37 counts of alleged war crimes. On March 15, Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova escaped unscathed from a bombing targeting his vehicle in the provincial capital of Pristina.

The events triggered repeated calls for composure by U.N. and Kosovo Force officials.

“I appeal … to the people of Kosovo to express your feelings through peaceful means. A violent response will not help Kosovo,” the U.N.’s top envoy to the region, Soren Jessen-Peterson, said in a statement released March 8. “It is important that we all remain calm and dignified during these difficult days.”

Wade said the National Guardsmen under his command came to Kosovo prepared to start their mission in a time of potential unrest: March 18 marks the one-year anniversary of the last major outbreak of ethnic violence between ethnic Albanians and Serbs in the area. About 2,000 U.S. troops are serving in Kosovo.

NATO forces have been in place in the province since 1999, following a bombing campaign to push former Yugoslavian leader Slobodan Milosevic’s forces out of the region.

The 18,000-soldier peacekeeping force received a timely boost in troop numbers just before Haradinaj’s resignation last week. On March 6, a battalion of British troops was asked to join a German armored battalion in a previously planned training exercise called Operation Determined Effort 2005, KFOR public information officer Leroy Guillaume said.

Bad weather in Kosovo and lessons learned from the 2004 training regimen, “showed that we need a plan to be ready to face any contingency,” Guillaume said of the reason for the last-minute troop addition in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.

Wade said he didn’t think ethnic tensions in MNB (East) would increase as events continued to unfold in Kosovo’s new government.

“I don’t expect an escalation, given what we’ve seen,” he said.

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