New Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen made his maiden visit to Kosovo yesterday to evaluate his plans to trim the alliance’s security mission in the breakaway Serbian province a decade after war.
Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister, hopes to gradually wind down the presence of Nato’s 13,800-strong Kosovo Force (KFOR) to a small reaction unit or withdraw it completely.
“I would like to stress that this decision only reflects the improvement of the security situation in Kosovo and… is conditionally based,” he said in the capital Pristina.
“That means that reductions will take place in accordance with the continued improvement in the security situation,” Rasmussen said without offering a time frame.
After taking over from his predecessor Jaap de Hoop Scheffer this month, Rasmussen made his first official visit to Afghanistan, where he wants to boost Nato troops in order to complete a successful handover of security to local forces.
At the time, he said one of the priorities of his four-year term was “to see KFOR reduced to just a small reaction force, or out altogether.”
Speaking to reporters here, he said: “The fact I decided to go to Kosovo only a few days after I took over my new office clearly reflects that I will give Kosovo high priority in my work as secretary general of Nato.
“We will stay committed to ensuring the security in Kosovo and in parallel with that I can confirm that we will continue to assist the Kosovo authorities in the continued development of the Kosovo Security Force.”
Launched in January this year, the KSF is to eventually number 2,500 members in a civilian protection force meant to help in emergency situations.
But the KSF’s formation was met with anger by Belgrade’s government and Serbs in Kosovo who fear it will be dominated by ethnic Albanians they cannot trust.
Nato says, however, that Kosovo’s security has improved since it declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, a move backed by the West but opposed by Serbia, Russia and China.
“We will definitely not take decisions that have a negative impact on security in Kosovo,” Rasmussen stressed.
In his one-day visit to Kosovo, the Nato chief met with President Fatmir Sejdiu, Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and KFOR commander lieutenant general Giuseppe Emilio Gay.
He then made his way to a KFOR command post near Mitrovica, the ethnically divided northern town that has witnessed some of the worst violence in Kosovo since its 1998-99 war.
Tens of thousands of Nato troops entered Kosovo after the alliance’s 11-week bombing campaign in 1999 to end a brutal crackdown by forces loyal to late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic on separatist ethnic Albanians.
In June, the alliance revealed plans to cut the KFOR mission to 10,000 troops by January, and to some 2,500 personnel within two years if a series of benchmarks are met.
Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians are estimated to account for around 90% of the disputed territory’s 2mn population.