NATO's Kosovo commander said Tuesday the alliance has shelved plans for a troop reduction because of an upsurge in violence and lingering security threats in the country's ethnically tense north.
Maj. Gen. Erhard Buehler said in an interview with The Associated Press that he does not think "there will be further reductions in the near future" in the peacekeeping mission, which was deployed to end the 1998-99 Kosovo war.
"There are some conditions to follow," the German officer said. "The most important condition is to substantially improve the security situation in the north."
The mission had planned to reduce by half its 5,000 NATO troops in Kosovo by the end of this year. But last month's violent border dispute between Kosovo and Serbia forced the alliance to bring reinforcements in from Germany and Austria.
One Kosovo policeman was killed during clashes that erupted after Kosovo's government tried set up customs points along its border with Serbia, which does not recognize Kosovo's independence. Serbian officials responded by setting up roadblocks in Kosovo's Serb-run north and shooting at NATO peacekeepers.
Buehler acted as a mediator to stop the fighting and negotiate a settlement that reopened the disputed border posts by putting NATO in control so that shipments of food and humanitarian goods could resume there.
But he said Tuesday that more tension is likely as international authorities seek to indict local Serbs who blocked roads and also fired at NATO peacekeepers. "I mean heavy reaction in terms of demonstrations, roadblocks denying freedom of movement for the troops, rhetoric and so on," Buehler said. "We can handle such a situation."
He said NATO has given evidence in the border crossing cases to the European Union rule of law mission and that arrests by the EU's 3,000-strong police mission are pending.
Buehler met Tuesday with Robert Cooper, an EU envoy who mediates an ongoing dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia representatives. The next round of talks is scheduled for Friday.
In 1999, NATO used 50,000 troops to take over control of Kosovo alongside a U.N. mission after Serbia's troops were forced to end a brutal crackdown on separatist ethnic Albanians and withdraw from the territory.
Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence is backed by 80 countries, but not Serbia.