Saturday, January 20, 2007

BELGRADE, Serbia — The United States has moved troops to northern Kosovo to protect the Serbian minority ahead of elections today in Serbia, where nationalists have pledged to prevent the province’s ethnic-Albanian majority from obtaining independence.

Two U.S. military platoons, accompanied by one Austrian and one Georgian platoon were deployed in late December for a month to a NATO camp at Leposavic, close to the border with Serbia, Kosovo’s peacekeepers’ headquarters announced. The redeployment was part of NATO’s plan for rapid intervention aimed at providing security for about 100,000 Serbs living in Kosovo.

A U.N. civil administration mission and about 16,000 NATO protection troops have been in Kosovo to curb ethnic conflicts since 1999, when an Allied bombing campaign expelled Serbian forces.

The war ended a wave of brutal ethnic cleansing against the Kosovar civilian population by Serbian then-President Slobodan Milosevic’s regime.

In the Kosovo capital of Pristina, leaders of ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the province’s population of 1.8 million, insist on independence. Serbia Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has said Kosovo will be part of Serbia and the historic cradle of Serbian culture forever.

After the election, Kosovo is expected to be offered limited independence from Belgrade.

The latest rotation of about 1,500 U.S. troops under Brig. Gen. Douglas Earhart, commander of the U.S. Army National Guard’s 29th Infantry Division and of Kosovo Forces Multi-National Task Force (East) moved into position in Kosovo last month. Most are Guard troops from Virginia, Massachusetts, 20 other states and Puerto Rico.

The United Nations late last year delayed a recommendation by the U.N. special envoy for Kosovo, Martti Ahtisaari, on the future status of Kosovo so as not to prejudice the Serbian elections.

NATO said last week it is unlikely to reduce troop levels in the province until 2008. NATO has 16,500 soldiers from 35 countries deployed in Kosovo.

“We will maintain our mandate, our strength, our organization on 2007,” Lt. Gen. Roland Kather, the German commander of NATO’s Kosovo force, said at a press conference. “I think that there will be no change until early 2008, and then we’ll have to look at how far we have come.”

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