European Force takes on Kosovo command

PRISTINA, Apr 19, 2000 -- (Reuters) The five-nation Eurocorps took command of Kosovo's international peacekeeping force on Tuesday, pledging continuity and stressing it would operate completely within NATO structures.

Taking over key positions at KFOR headquarters, including the commander's post, is the biggest test for the Eurocorps - composed of staff from France, Germany, Spain, Belgium and Luxembourg - since its creation in 1992.

Some critics, particularly in Britain and the United States, have been wary of the Eurocorps, seeing it as an organization which could undermine and compete with NATO.

But Spanish Lieutenant-General Juan Ortuno, the Eurocorps chief taking over as KFOR commander from General Klaus Reinhardt of Germany, stressed that KFOR remained a NATO-led operation.

"It is... important to remember that KFOR is an integral part of NATO," Ortuno said at the handover ceremony in Pristina, noting that he would now report to NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, U.S. Army General Wesley Clark.

The ceremony took place against a backdrop of continuing violence in Kosovo. An ethnic Albanian ex-guerrilla was gunned down in broad daylight in Pristina on Monday and two people were wounded in a rocket attack in the center of the city that night.

Javier Solana, the former NATO secretary-general now in charge of building up the European Union's joint military efforts, said violence in the province was still too high, nearly a year after NATO bombing drove out Serb forces.

He said Tuesday's handover was a significant event but also stressed that Europe was already heavily committed to KFOR.

"The most important thing is that, as from the very beginning, the Europeans continue to have 80 percent of the troops deployed on the ground," he told a news conference.

The Strasbourg-based Eurocorps, a Franco-German brainchild, is providing around 350 of the 1,200 staff at headquarters. Senior officers from non-Eurocorps countries such as the United States and Britain are also among the headquarters staff.

Clark said the corps had done much to move closer to NATO over the past few years. He noted that only the KFOR headquarters staff was changing, and the people of Kosovo should see little visible difference as a result of the handover.

KFOR has around 45,000 troops - 39,000 in Kosovo and the others mostly in support roles in neighboring countries.

"The same people are on the ground and General Ortuno's going to keep exactly the same grip on the situation that General Reinhardt had," Clark told reporters after the ceremony.

Many analysts see the decision to put the Eurocorps in charge for the next six-month rotation at KFOR headquarters as a major boost to the European Security and Defense Initiative, a project to create a Europeans-only crisis-management force.

Some commentators remain unconvinced, however, about the Eurocorps, which has existed largely on paper since its inception, with some of its units committed only in theory.

"If nothing else, this will be Europe's first big military reality check," The Economist of London wrote earlier this year after the decision to assign KFOR command to the corps.

Original article