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Monday, January 29, 2007

NATO ready for "all eventualities" in Kosovo

BRUSSELS, Jan 29 (Reuters) - NATO's 17,000-strong Kosovo peace force is on alert for potential violence as the United Nations prepares to reveal plans for the future of the breakaway Serb province, the alliance's chief said on Monday.

U.N. special envoy Martti Ahtisaari is due on Friday to go to Belgrade and Pristina to present long-awaited proposals expected to grant virtual independence to the majority Albanian province.

The NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) has sought to keep the peace there for eight years since the alliance drove out Serb forces accused of ethnic cleansing, and is geared up for new tensions triggered by the Ahtisaari report.

"KFOR is prepared for all eventualities," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters after a meeting Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski.

"Let nobody in Kosovo have any illusions that they should test KFOR ... That goes for the majority and the minority," he said, referring to tense relations between the U.N.-administered province's 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority and local Serbs.

NATO forces were caught by surprise in 2004 when 19 people were killed during a bout of rioting by ethnic Albanian mobs who burned Serb homes and U.N. vehicles.

Alliance diplomats fear the political limbo after last week's inconclusive Serb elections could delay a settlement on Kosovo, setting off tensions just as the United Nations proceeds with a delicate handover of authority to the European Union.

"The NATO allies support the proposals President Ahtisaari is going to present to the parties on February 2," said de Hoop Scheffer.

"We support his timelines. And I think it is important that all nations and countries in the region do the same."

The EU is preparing to take over responsibility for policing the province and wants to launch a rule of law mission of up to 1,500 personnel by mid-year -- always assuming Kosovo's status is settled by a U.N. resolution by then.
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