NATO activates reserve force for Kosovo

AP News
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Posted: Aug 02, 2011 5:51 PM
NATO activates reserve force for Kosovo

Serb protesters briefly stopped NATO's top commander on Tuesday night as he tried to ease tensions in Kosovo after a week of violence near the border with Serbia left one Kosovo police officer dead and brought peacekeepers under fire.

NATO said Maj. Gen. Erhard Buehler "was stopped at a roadblock" by the protesters on his way to meet Serbia's top Kosovo officials: Borislav Stefanovic and Goran Bogdanovic, the alliance said. Buehler's goal is to negotiate the removal of roadblocks in the tense Serb-run north.

Associated Press Television News video showed Stefanovic and Bogdanovic asking local Serbs to clear the way for Buehler and his convoy of three military vehicles to pass.

"I ask you to allow us to pass together," Stefanovic told Serb protesters. About 40 Serbs stopped the convoy and blocked the road with trucks.

Buehler was accompanied by Stefanovic and Bogdanovic as the crowd then split in half, clapping and chanting "Serbia, Serbia" as the officials passed.

NATO later said Buehler the opening of the road "was a pre-condition for the informal exchange of views" between them and that further meetings were planned.

NATO has sent reserve forces to Kosovo after a week of violence near the border with Serbia.

The additional troops are not permanently beefing up the alliance force in Kosovo, but providing immediate relief for soldiers who have been on duty since the crisis began, NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero stressed Tuesday.

The latest violence followed a Kosovo police action to control two disputed border crossings in northern Kosovo, sparking anger among local Serbs who want the former province of Kosovo to remain part of Serbia. After police withdrew, a mob of Serb militants one border post ablaze and fired on NATO peacekeepers sent to restore order.

"This is not an escalation, on the contrary, the situation is calming down," Romero said. "This is a pure tactical decision to relieve our forces and be on the safe side."

Romero declined to discuss the size of the reserve force. But an official who could not to be identified under standing rules said a battalion-sized unit based in Germany had been activated. A battalion usually numbers about 700 troops.

NATO still has nearly 6,000 troops based in Kosovo, 12 years after the war that ended Serbia's rule there. The international force originally numbered nearly 50,000 troops when it entered Kosovo in 1999.

The alliance has stressed it remains "status neutral" in the dispute between Kosovo's government and the Serb minority.

Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008. More than 70 nations including the United States support Kosovo's independence, but it is still not a member of the United Nations.

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Slobodan Lekic in Brussels and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

(This version CORRECTS Corrects byline.)