BRUSSELS, June 8 (Reuters) - NATO defence ministers will commit on Thursday to maintaining the size of their 17,000-plus peacekeeping force in Kosovo this year as the Serbian province eyes sensitive talks on its final status.
NATO military planners have argued there is scope to shrink the alliance's largest operation without affecting its ability to deal with unrest. But their political masters will declare that 2005 is not the right time to down-size.
"There will be an emphasis on the continued need for a capable force presence," NATO Assistant Secretary-General for Defence Planning and Policy John Colston told a news briefing before the scheduled defence ministers meeting in Brussels.
A NATO official speaking on condition of anonymity said that would mean in practice that troop numbers would not fall.
"There will be no early or significant change in the level of capacity in Kosovo. They (the ministers) will stress the need to retain capability and robust forces in Kosovo through this year, and to send the right political signals," he said.
NATO has 17,100 troops in the province of 2 million people. It became a U.N. protectorate in 1999 after NATO bombing expelled Serb forces accused of atrocities against Albanian civilians in fighting to crush a separatist insurgency.
The West hopes to open negotiations later this year on whether Kosovo becomes independent or remains part of Serbia.
Washington said last month that 2005 should be the "year of decision" for Kosovo, whose 90-percent Albanian population wants to sever all ties to Serbia. Serbia says this is impossible.
However many NATO nations see a risk that ethnic tensions could be rekindled in the run-up and during the talks.
The NATO force -- then numbering 18,000 -- was overwhelmed during Albanian riots in March last year against Serbs and other minorities, in which 19 people died and more than 800 homes were torched.
U.S. General James Jones, the alliance's top soldier in Europe, argued the failure showed that the ability to move troops rapidly to hotspots was more important than overall numbers.
Jones said in April the alliance was now studying ways to remove inefficiencies in the logistics and support operation behind its Kosovo force and suggested the issue could come up at Thursday's meeting of NATO defence ministers.