By Jim Garamone, American Forces Press ServiceOctober 11, 2007
WASHINGTON (American Forces Press Service, Oct. 12, 2007) - With elections nearing and the question of independence uncertain, the next few months will be a "telling time" for people in the breakaway Serbian province of Kosovo, NATO's top military officer said at a Pentagon news conference Oct. 10.
Army Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, NATO's supreme allied commander for Europe, said the Balkan province is the number two issue he works on, second only to Afghanistan.
Gen. Craddock said Kosovo's elections are scheduled for Nov. 17. Kosovars will elect 120 members of the national assembly. The parliament members will then elect a new president and prime minister. For the first time, voters also will directly elect mayors in the province's 30 towns.
NATO leads the peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. Its 16,000-member Kosovo Force provides security and stability. NATO soldiers moved in following a 78-day NATO air campaign that began in March 1999 in response to Serbian moves to expel the Albanian population of the area. Kosovo is 90 percent ethnic Albanian.
The vast majority of Kosovars want independence from Serbia. Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who served as a special United Nations negotiator in Kosovo, recommended the country become independent of Serbia - a move the Serbs vigorously oppose.
"I think right now I would tell you that in Kosovo there is uncertainty," Gen. Craddock said today. "There's impatience (among the Kosovars), because they want a decision. I think that December will be a telling time, and I think that there is some angst right now in Kosovo, and impatience and uncertainty."
The decision in Kosovo is about employment and the economy, the general said. "And it's about getting electricity every day, because that's a terrible situation right now," he said. There has been a drought in the province, and water is a concern. All these things are "front-burner issues" for Kosovars, and NATO will have to watch the process closely in December, Gen. Craddock said.
Gen. Craddock said NATO's Kosovo Force is extremely well-trained. National caveats that had limited how some countries' forces could be used are now gone, Gen. Craddock said. NATO commanders in the province have the flexibility they need, and NATO officials have been making prudent and wide-ranging plans, he said.
Roughly 1,600 U.S. servicemembers are part of the force in Kosovo. The Kansas National Guard's 39th Division is rotating out, to be replaced in a few weeks by the Virginia National Guard's 29th Division.