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NATO May Reduce Peacekeeping Force In Kosovo After Elections

By David Holley

A new democratic government in Yugoslavia and law-and-order gains in Kosovo will open the door to reductions of the international peacekeeping force in the province, but cuts must be made gradually, military and civilian authorities here say.

U.S. Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, commander of NATO forces in Europe, noted at a news conference Monday in Pristina that troop levels have been boosted to provide security before local elections set for Oct. 28. He strongly implied that the force will begin returning to pre-election levels after the vote.

While avoiding any timetable, Ralston also indicated that the international force here, known as KFOR, could be further reduced if the Yugoslav army no longer appears to pose a threat of attack.

KFOR has 39,900 troops in Kosovo, including 5,700 Americans. An additional 5,500 KFOR soldiers, including 1,000 Americans, are in support capacities in nearby Macedonia, Albania and Greece. Before the pre-election buildup, KFOR had about 36,000 troops in Kosovo.

“We go through on a continuous basis looking at the environment, looking at the threat, looking at the mission tasks,” Ralston said when asked about the apparent decrease in the threat of Yugoslav attack under the new government of President Vojislav Kostunica. The peacekeepers arrived in the separatist province last year after an 11-week NATO bombing campaign against Kostunica’s predecessor, Slobodan Milosevic.

Bernard Kouchner, the Frenchman who heads the U.N. mission here, said in an interview that “with the change in (the Yugoslav capital of) Belgrade, we can consider the eventuality of reducing some forces.”

“In some few months, and eventually some few years, we can certainly reduce the forces,” Kouchner said.