By Fatos Bytyci
PRISTINA (Reuters) - NATO confirmed on Thursday that France plans to withdraw its 320 troops from Kosovo, citing commitments in Mali and a pending French intervention in Central African Republic.
Speaking in Kosovo, NATO's top military commander, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, did not specify when the troops would leave or whether they would be replaced.
France is preparing to increase its force in Central African Republic, an anarchic former French colony, to at least 1,000 soldiers to prevent sectarian violence from destabilizing the wider region.
In January, French military forces intervened in Mali, another ex-colony, to reverse an Islamist militant takeover of the north. Around 2,800 French soldiers remain in the West African country.
"The French took a decision based on some of their other commitments," Breedlove told reporters, confirming media reports. He said commanders of NATO's Kosovo peacekeeping force would "take care of this issue in the short-term".
"We at NATO headquarters and with other nations will begin to address the longer-term impacts."
French troops have been part of NATO's Kosovo force since the alliance swept into the former Serbian province in 1999 after bombing for 11 weeks to drive out forces under late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
The 14 years since have seen the force, known as KFOR, cut back from more than 50,000 at its height to around 5,000 today. Violence in the mainly Serb north of the majority-Albanian country stalled NATO plans to cut back further last year.
For years, French troops were deployed in the volatile north of Kosovo, centered on the former mining town of Mitrovica which has been divided between ethnic Serbs and Albanians since the 1998-99 war.
Tensions in the north remain, fuelled most recently by an EU-brokered accord between Serbia and Kosovo in April to settle ties and integrate the north with the rest of Kosovo, something Serb nationalist hardliners vehemently oppose.
Germany, the United States and Italy account for the largest contingents within KFOR.
(Editing by Matt Robinson/Mark Heinrich)