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Nato chief seeks to avert US Kosovo deadline

BRUSSELS, May 19, 2000 -- (Reuters) NATO Secretary-General George Robertson on Thursday urged the U.S. Senate to drop a threat to pull American troops out of Kosovo next year, warning that setting deadlines could endanger the peace mission.

Robertson said a bill sponsored by Senators John Warner and Robert Byrd made the U.S. presence in Kosovo hostage in a scrap with the White House over transatlantic burden-sharing in NATO.

He pointed out Europe was already providing 80 percent of the troops in Kosovo and shouldering "by far the largest financial burden", and he stressed that an American pullout could be crippling to the mission.

Burden-sharing disputes should not distract NATO, he said.

"The NATO presence in Kosovo needs to be decided on the merits of our being there - the job that we are doing and that we need to finish," the secretary-general stressed.

"I believe we owe it to ourselves, if not the people of the region, to finish the job that we began."

Unilaterally fixing a deadline for quitting the operation would send a dangerous signal to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic "that NATO is divided and that its biggest and most important ally is pulling up stakes", Robertson said.

In a trial of strength with the presidency, the Senate is asserting its right to cut off funds for the 5,900 U.S. troops serving with the KFOR peacekeeping mission, forcing withdrawal by July 1 next year unless Congress authorizes them to stay.

Senators backing the bill say their aim is partly to ensure European allies make good on commitments to provide police and pay for Kosovo's rehabilitation under United Nations protection.

WEAKNESS ATTRACTS VULTURES

NATO is convinced that Milosevic wants to test its resolve to stay on in Kosovo at every opportunity. Setting the legislative clock ticking for an automatic U.S. withdrawal on July 1, 2001, would boost his hopes and alarm Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, the alliance says.

Robertson's rare, direct intervention in a Congressional issue was made public by NATO officials ahead of a Senate vote later on Thursday on the bill, slammed by Republican presidential candidate George Bush as "legislative overreach".

Robertson said the way the bill backed by Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat and Warner, a Republican from Virginia, was written would point towards a single policy outcome - U.S. withdrawal.

Regardless of any vote, "the Administration would be required to produce a plan for the total hand-off of the NATO operation to the European allies".

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said the Senate is "playing with fire".

"In the Balkans, signs of impatience can be misinterpreted as symptoms of weakness. We cannot afford that in a region where weakness attracts vultures," she said.

Democrats in the House of Representatives on Wednesday broke ranks to vote against the Clinton Administration in a similar bill setting a Kosovo deadline, which was adopted.

That measure would require the president to certify by April 1, 2001, that NATO allies had met most commitments for funding police, reconstruction and aid activities in Kosovo.

Congress never approved the deployment of U.S. peacekeeping troops in Kosovo at the end of the NATO air war in 1999, and many lawmakers have argued that authorizing such missions should be a congressional prerogative.



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