By Robert Fox in Pristina
26 June 2005
Britain is drawing up contingency plans to send up to 1,000 extra British troops and advisers to Kosovo as a crisis looms over the Balkan province's future.
Officially Kosovo remains a part of Serbia, although it has been under international control since 1999, when Nato troops took over in the wake of a bombing campaign against ex-president Slobodan Milosevic. But the province's restive Albanian majority, backed by the US, is demanding independence from "final status" talks later this year.
Serbs inside Kosovo, of whom about 125,000 remain, and the Serbian government still oppose Kosovo breaking away. Recently, however, Belgrade has shifted its position by declaring Kosovo should be granted something "more than autonomy, but less than independence". Either way, the interim Kosovo government of President Ibrahim Rugova and Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi believes there is a threat of serious violence once the talks get under way.
In March last year riots across the province killed 19 people, including one UN policeman, and seriously injured more than 200. A report into the riots by Kai Eide, a Norwegian diplomat, castigated Unmik, the UN mission to Kosovo, and K-For, the international military force, for incompetence, inertia and corruption. As the violence erupted, German UN troops were accused of hiding in their barracks. The 1st Battalion, the Royal Gloucester Wiltshire and Berkshire Regiment, then Nato's spearhead battalion, had to be flown in. As tensions rose this spring, the 1st Green Jackets had to be brought in for a similar mission.
As the "final status" talks begin, trouble is feared from Serb militants in Mitrovica and north-east Kosovo, with intelligence suggesting they could be supported by nationalists across the border in Serbia. More worrying, say intelligence analysts, is the possibility of another spontaneous nationalist uprising by militant Kosovo Albanians if independence is put off yet again. "We could face something like the KLA uprising in 1998, only this time we don't know who the new leaders will be," said one.
Britain has 200 troops and support personnel in Kosovo, and some 1,000 troops in Bosnia, where the international administration is run by Lord Ashdown. But his mission ends in October, and Britain hands over command of the EU force in Bosnia at the same time. The Ministry of Defence says officially there are no immediate plans to send troops to Kosovo, but "contingencies are under constant review". According to military sources, the timing means the British battalion in Bosnia could be switched to Kosovo, just when it might be needed.