PRISTINA, Serbia-Montenegro (AP) - An Italian general took over the command of the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo on Thursday as the province enters the delicate phase that could lead to talks on its long-term future.
In a ceremony attended by the defense ministers of Italy and France and in the presence of senior NATO officials, Lt. Gen. Giuseppe Valotto took charge of the 17,500-strong force for one year.
Valotto, the force's tenth commander since it deployed in the province in mid-1999 after battling Serb forces, replaced the French Lt. Gen. Yves de Kermabon and said he will focus on working jointly with the U.N. officials running the province "to resolve the most important problems of Kosovo."
Adm. Harry Ulrich, the commander of NATO's Joint Force Command based in Naples, Italy, said Valotto takes command at a time when "the hopes of many are at stake."
In a sign of the alliance's improving relations with Serbia, the Serbia-Montenegro's army's chief of staff, Gen. Dragan Paskas, was also present at the ceremony for the first time.
But Kosovo's government issued a statement shortly after the ceremony expressing its "deep resentment" at the presence of the Serbia and Montenegro military delegation in the command handover.
"The participation of a general of an army that has committed crimes in Kosovo and which up to the day has not even apologized ... is an offending act to the feelings of the citizens and an unacceptable act to us," the government said.
Some ethnic Albanian leaders, including Lt. Gen. Agim Ceku, who commanded the former ethnic Albanian insurgents during the war, did not show up at the ceremony.
Ethnic tensions remain high in Kosovo six years after the war. There are fears that these tensions could escalate into violence if there is delay in talks or the outcome is disliked by either side.
Kosovo is dominated by ethnic Albanians seeking independence from Serbia, while Belgrade wants to retain at least some control over its southern province.
Talks to determine its future could begin this fall if the province meets internationally set standards on democracy, rule of law and civil rights for the Serb minority.
Michele Alliot-Marie, the French defense minister, warned of the sensitivity ahead "because there's always a risk that extremists are trying to impede on the smooth implementation of decisions and events."
As he congratulated the new commander, Italian defense minister Antonio Martino said the situation in Kosovo called for "the international community's unwavering attention."
Italy recently took over the command of the peacekeeping force in Afghanistan and is also due to take a lead role in peacekeeping in Bosnia.
The United Nations and NATO-led peacekeepers moved into Kosovo in mid-1999 after the alliance bombed Serbia for 78 days and halted Serb forces' crackdown on independence-seeking ethnic Albanians.