Wednesday, April 13, 2005

NATO denies plans to cut Kosovo force.

NATO on Wednesday denied reports it would cut back its 17,100 peacekeepers in Kosovo as the disputed United Nations protectorate nears talks on its future.

A spokesman for the NATO-led peace force in Kosovo, KFOR, said comments made on Tuesday by the alliance's top soldier, U.S. General James Jones, had been "misunderstood".

The Supreme Allied Commander Europe "did not speak about troop reductions, but about reorganisation and streamlining," French Major Leroy Guillaume told a news conference in Pristina.

Guillaume said NATO was looking at ways to cut the number of troops working on support and supply logistics and increase the number of troops in the field.

"Studies are being conducted in order to change the ratio between logistics troops and combat troops," he said. "The North Atlantic Council and NATO secretary-general have confirmed the number of troops will remain the same."

Kosovo's U.N. governor has urged NATO to hold off troop cuts as the province of 2 million people nears potentially explosive talks on its "final status", possibly in September.

The 90 percent Albanian majority is impatient for independence, a move Serbia says would be unacceptable.

NATO entered Kosovo in June 1999 with 60,000 troops after 78 days of bombing drove out Serb forces accused of killing and expelling thousands of ethnic Albanian civilians as they fought separatist guerrillas.

The peace force now numbers about 17,100 troops from more than 30 countries - by far the alliance's largest operation. The main contributors are Germany, France, Italy and the United States.

KFOR was heavily criticised in March last year after Albanian rioters overran Serb enclaves in a two-day orgy of violence in which 19 people died and more than 800 homes belonging to Serbs and other ethnic minorities were torched.

NATO has since stepped up training to deal with civil unrest, equipped soldiers with pepper spray and rubber bullets, and convinced member nations to remove operational restrictions that had undermined KFOR's response to the riots.

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