BRUSSELS (Reuters) – NATO ministers pledged on Friday to keep their KFOR peace force in Kosovo at current strength as the Serbian province heads towards independence and to make more troops available as necessary to deal with any violence.
Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leaders are expected to declare independence in the next few months after the failure of international mediation, a move that could lead to new unrest in the Balkans.
“KFOR shall remain in Kosovo on the basis of U.N. Security Council resolution 1244, unless the Security Council decides otherwise,” ministers agreed in a final communique.
“We renew our commitment to maintain KFOR’s national force, contributions, including reserves, at current levels and with no new caveats,” they added, using the military term for limits that nations sometimes impose on what their troops can do.
Such caveats meant NATO was caught badly off-guard during rioting in north Kosovo in 2004 which it struggled to control. The alliance has up to four reserve battalions — each with several hundred troops — on standby for trouble.
A “troika” of U.S., Russian and European mediators has failed to secure agreement between Pristina and Belgrade over Kosovo. A Western diplomat told Reuters they would deliver their report to the United Nations on Friday, three days before a December 10 deadline for a deal.
The envoy said the report prescribed no way forward on the fate of the breakaway province, reflecting differences between the West and Serb ally Russia.
“It should be delivered today,” he said. “It is very factual, describes what was done, and what the outcome was.”
“Clearly Washington, Russia and the European Union cannot agree on a joint way forward,” he told Reuters.
Washington and most European Union states are likely to recognize a declaration of independence by Kosovo, and are confident that its leaders will wait until around late January to enable NATO and the European Union to prepare for it.
“We will have a lot of white-knuckle days ahead of us, I am more confident than I was six months ago that we will all be together in the end,” the official said.
The agreement that U.N. Security Council resolution 1244 can justify NATO’s presence in Kosovo even after independence is crucial, as several nations such as Germany had harbored doubts over whether it could continue to apply.
U.N. Security Council veto-holder Russia has not made clear whether it will challenge such an application of the resolution. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said only that existing standards of international law must be respected.
“Anybody who goes in contravention to those is on a very slippery downward slope and it certainly won’t help the rest of us in Europe,” he said after brief talks with NATO counterparts, referring to concerns it could encourage other separatist moves.
Diplomats believe an explicit pledge by alliance nations that they will keep KFOR at full strength and not impose limits — such as banning their troops from riot control — will be a serious deterrent in the tense weeks ahead.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told reporters it was crucial that European nations, whose internal divisions failed to stop the outbreak of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, showed unity in the months ahead.
“This is in Europe’s backyard and European nations need to show real leadership … We know from the mid-1990s the cost of Europe wringing its hands and failing to provide leadership.”
Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations since a 1999 NATO bombing campaign to halt ethnic cleansing by Serb forces of the 90 percent ethnic Albanian province, which Belgrade insists must remain under its sovereignty.