Nato commander says Kosovo much safer one year on

PRISTINA, Mar 22, 2000 -- (Reuters) NATO's top military man said on Tuesday that Kosovo is a much safer place now than it was a year ago and that violence between the Yugoslav province's ethnic groups had reduced significantly.

"The level of violence has come down remarkably, and what remains is primarily organised crime and family violence," NATO supreme commander, U.S. General Wesley Clark, told a news conference during a one-day visit to Prague.

Ahead of the March 24 anniversary of last year's 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia by the western alliance, Clark rejected claims that little had been solved in Kosovo.

"The idea that there is something (in Kosovo now) that resembles the situation before the air strikes is absolutely incorrect," Clark said.

"Nothing could be further from the truth... More than one million refugees have returned to their homes...(We're) trying to work through the United Nations to reconstruct the economy and trying to establish democratic and western values."

Critics of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's campaign in Kosovo have said the bombing resolved little and exacerbated ethnic tensions while destroying large parts of Yugoslavia.

United Nations human rights envoy for Yugoslavia, former Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier, said after a tour of the province on Monday that there was "chaos" in Kosovo after the "mistake" of bombing "without knowing what will be next."

Ethnic tensions have been rising in Kosovo again ahead of the anniversary of the start of the bombing. Dienstbier said ethnic Albanians were still trying to drive out Serbs.

Clark said that before the air strikes, Serbs had conducted a systematic "government-sponsored campaign of intimidation, repression and selective elimination of Kosovar Albanians".

He said that while there was still a high incidence of crime in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica and other places in Kosovo, it was "lower than the (crime) rate in Moscow."

Clark added however that ethnic-Albanian "extremists" were still trying to stir up fighting in southern Serbia, but that the NATO-led KFOR mission had been successful in cutting off some of the supply lines to these guerrilla fighters.

He said several nations were expected to send more troops to help the 40,000 strong KFOR peacekeeping force in Kosovo, and a study would be completed in the coming weeks to determine by how much the troop levels would need to be expanded.

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