- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

MADRID (AP) - Spain will withdraw its hundreds of troops from the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Kosovo in the next few months, an official said Thursday.

Defense Minister Carme Chacon made the announcement during a visit to the Spanish base at Istok in Kosovo.

“After 10 years of great work, the mission has been completed and it is time to return home,” the ministry quoted Chacon as saying.

Spain has 620 soldiers in Kosovo as part of a U.N. mission, which contains about 15,500 soldiers from NATO members and allies. Chacon said the troops would return home gradually and in coordination with NATO allies, with the withdrawal expected to be completed by the end of the summer.

Doubts over the continuing presence of Spanish troops in Kosovo were raised at home after Spain, unlike most of its European Union partners, refused to recognize Kosovo’s declaration of independence last year.

Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero reaffirmed that stance during a visit to Madrid by Serbian President Boris Tadic earlier this month.

Spain has joined nations such as Russia and China in rejecting Kosovo’s independence declaration as a violation of international law and a dangerous precedent that could encourage separatists elsewhere, including in Spain’s own Basque region.

NATO appeared annoyed on Thursday at Spain’s withdrawal decision, which came with little warning to Spain’s allies.

NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero told The Associated Press in Brussels that the alliance’s secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, had been informed of the Spanish decision prior to its announcement but felt that such a move “should have been taken as a result of a decision within the alliance.”

She added that NATO does “not yet” consider that “political and security conditions are in place” in Kosovo.

Spanish National Radio quoted Chacon as saying that Spanish troops had helped guarantee security in Kosovo for “the million people displaced and made refugees by the ethnic cleansing carried out in this land by (former Yugoslav President) Slobodan Milosevic.”

Milosevic died of a heart attack in his prison cell in March 2006 while on trial for genocide at the U.N. war crimes court for former Yugoslavia in The Hague, Netherlands.

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Associated Press writer Constant Brand in Brussels contributed to this report.

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