The NATO military alliance says it will remain in Kosovo even if leaders of the Serbian province fail to reach an agreement with Serbia. Friday's announcement at a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels comes just days before a December 10 deadline for an end to internationally backed negotiations on the future status of Kosovo. Stefan Bos reports for VOA from Budapest.
NATO spokesman James Appathurai told reporters that NATO ministers have agreed to keep their KFOR peacekeeping force in Kosovo at its current strength of just over 16,000 troops.
Appathurai also made clear that NATO will have more soldiers on standby, amid concerns that plans by ethnic Albanian leaders to declare the province independent from Serbia will spark new unrest in the Balkans.
"Allies agree that U.N. Security Council resolution 1244 provides a platform for the continuing presence of NATO forces in Kosovo," said Appathurai. "Second that they commit to maintain the force levels of KFOR at the levels that we have them or to adjust them as necessary. That includes, if necessary, reinforcements."
Friday's agreement on the peacekeepers' future role in Kosovo came after NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said it was important to ensure security for all ethnic groups in the troubled province.
"NATO's continued commitment to the security and stability of the region remains crucial," he said. "And we will act resolutely against anyone who seeks to resort to violence. Regardless of the outcome of the status process, Kosovo will remain and has to remain a place where Kosovar Albanians, Serbs and others must be able live in peace together free from fear and intimidation."
The peacekeepers have been in Kosovo since 1999 when NATO forced Serb troops to end a brutal crackdown on the independence seeking ethnic Albanian majority of the province.
International mediators are expected to report to the United Nations on Monday that efforts to reach a compromise between Kosovo's government and Belgrade have failed.
Russia wants further mediation between Serbia, which opposes independence, and Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership.
However, Western governments involved in the negotiations say the time has come to settle Kosovo's status.
Analysts expect the United States and most European Union countries to recognize an independent Kosovo. However, Western officials have expressed hopes that Kosovo's leaders will wait with a declaration of independence till late January, to give NATO and the European Union more time to prepare for it.