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NATO Pledges Kosovo Crime Crackdown - 2002-03-11

NATO has pledged to crack down on organized crime in Kosovo, which the alliance fears is destabilizing the internationally-run Yugoslav province. NATO says it plans to work more closely with the United Nations and local police units to neutralize criminal gangs.

NATO Secretary General George Robertson says the alliance wants to respond robustly to the activities of criminal groups, which have made Kosovo a center for drug smuggling, arms contraband and the trafficking of human beings. Mr. Robertson says such gangs are stealing Kosovo's future from its people and must be rooted out.

The Secretary-General met at NATO headquarters Monday with Michael Steiner, the new U.N. administrator for Kosovo. Mr. Steiner later briefed European Union foreign ministers on the situation in Kosovo. He also tried to drum up international support for the province at a time when world attention has shifted away from the Balkans to such places as the Middle East and Afghanistan.

A NATO official says the alliance is concerned that the widespread presence of organized criminal gangs in Kosovo is undermining progress made in the province since the U.N. and NATO took charge of the administration there nearly three years ago. But he says too tough a crackdown on criminals might cause a backlash since several ethnic Albanian politicians are suspected of being linked to the gangs.

While the international military presence in Kosovo has been reduced, Mr. Robertson says that there has been no slackening of NATO's commitment to make the province safe for its people.

Mr. Steiner says he approves an eventual troop reduction but advises against a sudden withdrawal of forces.

Last week, Kosovo's parliament elected moderate ethnic-Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova as its first president as part of a power-sharing deal among the province's three major ethnic Albanian parties. But NATO officials say the province is still unstable and tense.

One source of instability is widespread unemployment, believed to be as high as 50 percent.