Thursday, September 21, 2006

NATO steps up Kosovo patrols as decision nears

PRISTINA, Serbia, Sept 21 (Reuters) - NATO stepped up patrols in Kosovo on Thursday to head off possible violence as a decision nears on the fate of Serbia's breakaway province.

The United Nations and NATO were concerned about a recent spate of bomb attacks, including one on Tuesday night that wounded four elderly Serbs, said a spokesman for the 16,000-strong NATO-led force (KFOR).

"Both KFOR and the U.N. decided to show determination that they will not tolerate any violence, increasing patrols and checkpoints and conducting exercises in west and east Kosovo," said KFOR's Colonel Reiner Senger.

Meeting in New York on Wednesday, major powers authorised U.N. chief mediator Martti Ahtisaari to propose a solution for Kosovo's final status and achieve a settlement by the end of this year.

Former Finnish president Ahtisaari is expected to propose independence for Kosovo, setting up a showdown with Serbia.

The Albanian majority province has been run by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO bombs drove out Serb forces accused of atrocities and ethnic cleansing in a two-year war with Albanian guerrillas.

The 90-percent ethnic Albanian majority is under intense Western pressure to improve the rights and security of the remaining 100,000 Serbs, a ghettoised minority.

Predictions by one Kosovo leader this week of an Albanian "revolt" if the province is denied independence has struck a nerve with U.N. officials.

Any major outbreak of violence could derail the process.

Around half the Serb population fled a wave of revenge attacks after the war and deployment of NATO troops. Those who stayed fear for the future in an independent Kosovo. The mainly Serb north has threatened to secede, splitting the province in two.

Major powers should allow more time to work out a peace plan, rather than imposing a solution that may be too difficult to enforce, Romanian President Traian Basescu said.

"Can you imagine a solution which is imposed without the agreement of all parties? I can guarantee that this will cost us more ... in guaranteeing security," Basescu told Reuters.

The biggest country in the Balkans, Romania has been trying to carve out a role as a regional mediator as it readies to join the European Union next year.

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