NATO's top commander in Kosovo said Friday the alliance's 10,000-strong peacekeeping force will be halved next year but warned that the country's Serb-run north remains a hotspot.
German Maj. Gen. Erhard Buehler said the decision to reduce the force numbers reflect the improved security situation in Kosovo, which has been largely free of major eruption of violence in the recent years.
NATO deployed 50,000 troops in Kosovo at the end of the alliances war against Serbia in 1999, which also ended the Serb rule there. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Serbia has vowed not to give up its claim over the territory.
The troops have been in charge of the overall security since the end of the war. As the security situation improved over the years, NATO gradually cut back its troops strengths.
Buehler said the only area in Kosovo where tensions persist is the north, where the Serb minority rejects the authority of Kosovo's Albanian-dominated government institutions.
Ever since the end of the war, the area has been a scene of frequent clashes between Serbs and ethnic Albanians. In recent months violent skirmishes and incidents have increased. In response, NATO has boosted its presence there, a move criticized by authorities in Serbia, who said it was designed to pressure local Serbs to accept Pristina's authority.
Buehler told The Associated Press the action was in response to a "civil war like" situation.
"We have seen in the recent weeks and months ... gunfire, explosives, hand grenades, even clashes and riots with intensive gunfire like a civil war type scenario and so I had to react," Buehler said. "This is clearly a threat to the people."
Despite the announced reduction, Buehler told The Associated Press that he will have enough troops to respond to any trouble in the north.
The halving of troupe numbers also comes ahead of the planned EU-backed talks between officials from Kosovo and Serbia. No date has been set for the talks.
Buehler said he does not expect mounting intolerance ahead of the talks, saying the "dialogue is designed ... to decrease the tensions."
Kosovo's authorities welcomed Friday's announcement.
(This version CORRECTS the current number of troops to 10,000 in the lead)