NATO said it would support the creation of a new domestic security force in Kosovo, a move consistent with the retreat of the nine-year UN mission in the country, but likely to further strain relations with Serbia and Russia.
NATO announced Thursday that it was ready to back the launch of a new Kosovo domestic security force, in a move likely to exacerbate tensions with Serbia and Russia.
The announcement, at a meeting of NATO defence ministers, fits with United Nations plans to restructure the nine-year UNMIK mission in Kosovo, as the territory prepares to adopt a new constitution this weekend.
Kosovo has been run by the UN since 1999, when a NATO bombing campaign ended a Serb crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists, but from Sunday some of its responsibilities will be handed over to the European Union.
"NATO will supervise the standing down of the KPC (Kosovo Protection Corps) and the standing up of a civilian-controlled Kosovo security force," chief spokesman James Appathurai told reporters in Brussels.
He said it "will be a new, professional and multi-ethnic force which will be lightly armed and will possess no heavy weapons." Its first tasks, he said, would be crisis response, explosives disposal and civil protection.
NATO has been planning the move for several months, and an alliance diplomat has said that KFOR could move quickly to get the 2,500-strong force up and running.
"We're more or less ready to do that," he said.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on February 17, a move that received a hostile reception from Belgrade and its UN veto-wielding ally Russia, and both have opposed attempts to achieve that at every turn.
With the changes imminent, Russia played a new card Thursday, calling for the German head of UNMIK, Joachim Ruecker, to be sacked for his "scandalous" plans to curtail the mission.
NATO leads the KFOR contingent of 16,000 peacekeepers in Kosovo, and the ministers debated exactly how it will function as UNMIK's duties evolve in the days ahead, with some tasks falling to the EU.
Above all, NATO does not want to be left doing UN police duties.
"For KFOR, of course it is important that in this transitional phase under any circumstance there is a sufficient police presence, UNMIK police presence, for now," underlined alliance chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
KFOR must not be left "in the role of the first responder," he said.
Not all of the 35 nations in KFOR have the capability to handle riots, which is one of the most likely forms of trouble that international security personnel could face in Kosovo.
"There needs to be continuity in terms of the police issue in Kosovo, and that means the UN and the EU need to work out the transition," said US Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
"I just want to make sure we don't start changing the nature of the mission of KFOR in a way that we frankly think is unacceptable," he said.
NATO also faces two big political obstacles.
First is the fact that not all 26 NATO members recognise Kosovo's declaration of independence.
Spain, notably, has broken ranks with most of its NATO and European allies and refused to endorse an independent Kosovo, fearing it could encourage local separatists such as those in the Basque region.
But Madrid continues to supply soldiers to KFOR and police to UNMIK.
This has led to criticism from some quarters that Spain's position is unclear and that its troops are in effect being used to shore up an "illegal" breakaway Kosovo regime that their own government does not recognise.
The other political problem is NATO's cooperation with the EU, which has been dogged by the long-running dispute between alliance member Turkey and EU state Cyprus.
Date created : 2008-06-13