PRISTINA, Serbia (AP) - A senior NATO official warned Kosovo's extremists Monday not to test the alliance's resolve in keeping control over the province's security.
The 17,000-strong peacekeeping force, known as KFOR, was "trained and prepared to handle disgraceful behavior," said Adm. Harry Ulrich, NATO's commander for southeastern Europe.
Ulrich is visiting the troubled north amid fears that tensions will rise between Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority and Serb minority as U.N.-mediated talks aimed at resolving the province's long-term status continue.
Human rights watchdogs have criticized the alliance's peacekeepers, saying they failed to protect the province's minority Serbs during several days of rioting in March 2004 that plunged the U.N.-run province back into ethnic strife and left 19 dead and thousands displaced.
"I challenge the leaders of Kosovo and the good people of Kosovo not to go down that path," Ulrich said.
He met local Serb and U.N. officials in the ethnically tense town of Kosovska Mitrovica and is scheduled to lunch with the chief U.S. diplomat in Kosovo, Tina Kaidanow.
NATO-led peacekeepers are in the process of reopening a military base in the Serb-dominated north and increasing their presence alongside some 500 U.N. police officers recently deployed there.
The beefed-up security was triggered by calls from Serbian officials to boycott the province's ethnic Albanian-dominated institutions after a series of violent incidents that Serbian officials blamed on ethnic Albanians.
The talks are expected to conclude by year-end, but the two sides remain deeply divided.
Ethnic Albanians insist the province must become independent, while Serbia is offering broad autonomy, but not independence. Some Kosovo Serb leaders have warned of partition of the Serb-dominated north if independence is imposed upon them.
Meanwhile, Portugal's Defense Minister Nuno Severiano Teixeira is also visiting the province, where his country has about 300 soldiers as part of the peacekeeping force.