Nato rejects call for more troops to calm KosovoBy Tim Butcher and Julius Strauss
Saturday 26 February 2000
NATO yesterday refused to back an American plan to deploy 2,000 more peacekeepers to combat worsening ethnic tension in Kosovo.
The alliance's governing North Atlantic Council blocked a request from Gen Wesley Clark, the supreme commander, for three additional combat battalions. Instead, it was agreed that Nato should conduct an "internal review" of troop levels within the Kosovo force, Kfor. This could take weeks.
The decision amounted to a snub for Gen Clark, who has been trying to raise additional manpower to deal with simmering ethnic violence in Mitrovica that has claimed nine lives in the past fortnight and left dozens more injured. His demand was supported by the Clinton administration.
Tensions were high again yesterday when 3,000 Serbs held a rally in Mitrovica to protest about moves to re-integrate ethnic Albanians into the north of the city. The Serbs also protested that they were being treated as "second-class" citizens in Kosovo and that their plight was being ignored.
Nato sources immediately sought to project a confident image and to dispel suggestions that the Kosovo mission might be facing a crisis. One source said: "There is no crisis in Kosovo. There hasn't been any violence in Mitrovica for 10 days. The supreme commander has reserve forces at his command in theatre and he has the ability to send them in immediately. But what we have there now is perfectly sufficient."
Lord Robertson, the Secretary General of Nato and the former British Defence Secretary, also offered reassurance. He said: "The situation in Kosovo is under control. The situation in Mitrovica is calm. Mitrovica is a potential flashpoint; it flared up, but we dealt with the unrest quickly and decisively."
Despite the Nato decision, France, which has responsibility for the Mitrovica area, decided to send another 700 troops to strengthen its force. French peacekeepers face significant pressure from both sides of the ethnic divide and the decision by Paris to send more troops reflects a sense of unease within the French government at the adverse publicity generated by Mitrovica.
Other Nato nations sent troops to the town over the weekend and there was clear frustration directed against France by some contingents from other nations. Some contributing nations to Kfor, including Britain, have already scaled down their commitment to Kosovo since the first Western troops arrived there last June.
Nato officials said there had been a "hollowing out" of certain major units in Kosovo caused by the withdrawal of key components. This hampered the alliance's ability to respond rapidly and forcefully.
As the Serbs gathered for the rally in Mitrovica, dozens of French and Danish soldiers with riot shields and armoured vehicles flooded into the area to deter further ethnic clashes.
In southern Mitrovica the UN project to return ethnic Albanians to the north was also under way. More than 40 families came to a special centre to register themselves for return. But UN refugee officials said that most were still scared and would go back only if their security was guaranteed by Nato.
Mitrovica Serbs bitterly reject the plan, saying that with the town on the edge of an explosion there should be a "cooling off" period before a solution is sought. They are intensely suspicious of plans to re-integrate the city, claiming such a move would ensure their expulsion from Kosovo.
They complained that, while the UN administrator, Bernard Kouchner, and the head of the peacekeepers, Gen Klaus Reinhardt, had attended an ethnic Albanian demonstration, the leaders would not go to Serb rallies.
The German commander of the Kosovo force, Gen Reinhardt, had his gun stolen while trying to calm Albanian protesters in Mitrovica on Monday, it has been disclosed. His spokesman said: "It is a shame."