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Reduction in Kosovo Peacekeepers Is More Likely Now, Officials Say


PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — A new democratic government in Yugoslavia and law-and-order gains in Kosovo will open the door to reductions of the international peacekeeping force in the province, but cuts must be made gradually, military and civilian authorities here say.

U.S. Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Europe, noted at a news conference here Monday that troop levels have been boosted to provide security before local elections set for Oct. 28. He strongly implied that the force will begin returning to preelection levels after the vote.

While avoiding any timetable, Ralston also indicated that the international force here, known as KFOR, could be further reduced if the Yugoslav army no longer appears to pose a threat of attack.

KFOR has 39,900 troops in Kosovo, including 5,700 Americans. An additional 5,500 KFOR soldiers, including 1,000 Americans, are in support capacities in nearby Macedonia, Albania and Greece. Before the preelection buildup, KFOR had about 36,000 troops in Kosovo.

"We go through on a continuous basis looking at the environment, looking at the threat, looking at the mission tasks," Ralston said when asked about the apparent decrease in the threat of Yugoslav attack under the new government of President Vojislav Kostunica. The peacekeepers arrived in the separatist province last year after an 11-week NATO bombing campaign against Kostunica's predecessor, Slobodan Milosevic.

In their debate last week, both Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush and Democratic nominee Al Gore expressed the desire to pull U.S. troops out of Kosovo.

Bush noted during the debate that he is "on record as saying, at some point in time, I hope our European friends become the peacekeepers in Bosnia and in the Balkans. I hope that they put the troops on the ground so that we can withdraw our troops."

Gore responded, "I certainly don't disagree that we ought to get our troops home from places like the Balkans as soon as we can, as soon as the mission is complete."

Bernard Kouchner, the Frenchman who heads the U.N. mission here, said in an interview that "with the change in [the Yugoslav capital of] Belgrade, we can consider the eventuality of reducing some forces."

"In some few months, and eventually some few years, we can certainly reduce the forces," Kouchner said. "In terms of tanks, heavy cannons, heavy weapons, etc., [KFOR's size] will be decreased. But I'm not a specialist."

So far, however, the Yugoslav army has "not changed," Kouchner added. "For the moment, they are the same people. So let's wait. It will be absolutely childish to believe that in one day, or in one month, the army just changed. It is not true."

Oliver Ivanovic, head of the Serb National Council in northern Kosovo, said he is pressing KFOR to provide greater protection for Serbian enclaves in the predominantly ethnic Albanian province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic. But the elimination of the threat of attack by the Yugoslav army should make it possible to cut KFOR by half over the next two or three years, he said.

In addition to its purely military functions, KFOR has played a major role in policing duties, despite its troops' not having been trained for police work.

Efforts have been underway for more than a year to build up U.N. and local police forces to take over those responsibilities. A strong local police force and generally improved public safety in Kosovo could eventually relieve KFOR of at least part of that burden, but this process is still far from complete.

According to U.N. police statistics, there were 430 murders in Kosovo, many of them ethnically motivated revenge killings, between KFOR's entry in mid-June 1999 and the end of the year. So far this year, there have been 205. Major crimes have dropped since August to an average of 450 a week, compared with about 500 a week during the first half of the year.

KFOR soldiers have played a major role in providing humanitarian aid in Kosovo, and the gradual fulfillment of those duties could also free up some troops to go home.

But even as all these changes open up the possibility of a reduction in KFOR's size, all sides agree that KFOR is likely to remain in Kosovo for many years. Many ethnic Albanian leaders stress that a continued U.S. presence--not just European troops--is essential in Kosovo to ensure stability, largely because most ethnic Albanians place greater trust in the United States.

"Albanians just need Americans' guarantee," said Baton Haxhiu, editor in chief of Koha Ditore, Kosovo's most widely respected Albanian-language newspaper. "They do not believe in European policy for the region. If Americans leave the region, conflict is imminent. It's impossible to stop the conflict, believe me, if Americans go from here.

"If you have 1,000 American soldiers here, it would be OK. We need moral support. We need to see the American flag in the street. Nothing has changed in Serbia. It's just the transfer of power from one nationalist side to another nationalist side."

Milazim Krasniqi, vice president of the Liberal Center of Kosovo, an ethnic Albanian political party, said he is confident that the United States won't pull out all its troops for many years.

"If the Balkans--especially Kosovo and Bosnia--are left in the hands of Europeans, I'm deeply sure they will end up again in chaos," Krasniqi said. "Whoever wins the presidential race, we believe a pullout from Kosovo and the Balkans is impossible for a long period."

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