By John J. KruzelDecember 7, 2007
WASHINGTON (AFPS, Dec. 7, 2007) - As negotiations on Kosovo's "final status" are expected to reach a political stalemate Dec. 10, a top commander in NATO's Kosovo Force said his troops are prepared for any potential conflict in the breakaway province.
The commander of Kosovo Force's Multinational Task Force East said the mood in Kosovo is "anxious" days before talks led by the United States, the European Union and Russia are likely to end in disagreement. Provincial leaders of the 90-percent ethnic Albanian enclave in southern Serbia are expected to unilaterally declare Kosovo's independence in January or February.
"When the declaration of independence comes, we will be prepared to act against any kind of activity," Brig. Gen. John E. Davoren told American Forces Press Service Dec. 5.
"We are impartial," he said. "It doesn't matter whether you're a Kosovar Albanian or a Kosovo Serbian ... if you engage in violence, then we as members of Kosovo Force are going to have to act against you."
Kosovo has been under United Nations administration and policed by 16,000 NATO peacekeepers, known as KFOR, following a U.S.-led bombing campaign in 1999 that expelled the Serb army and prevented "ethnic cleansing" of the region's Albanians.
Brig. Gen. Davoren and the 35th Infantry Division took command of KFOR's Multinational Task Force East, or MNTF-E, on Nov. 2. MNTF-E, with headquarters in Urosevac at Camp Bondsteel, is one of five task forces that conduct intelligence-led operations, and work closely with both the local police and the local population to gather information, according to NATO's Web site.
MNTF-E also is responsible for more than 60 miles of administrative "boundary lines," the official name for the UN-mandated demarcation separating Kosovo and Serbia. The task force oversees roughly 50 miles of Kosovo-Macedonia border to the south, where incidents between ethnic Albanians and law officers in Macedonia the past two months have stirred controversy, Brig. Gen. Davoren said.
The brushes near Kosovo's border come in the midst of increasingly harsh political rhetoric from the Serb government in Belgrade, and growing concern over reports in Kosovo's news media of paramilitary activity along Kosovo's boundaries.
Though largely autonomous, Kosovo remains under the sovereignty of Belgrade, which sees Kosovo as the site of cherished Serb mainstays, including several of the most prominent Orthodox Christian shrines in the country. As Kosovo seeks independence, Serbia refused to relinquish the province.
"There is anxiety because there are a number of folks making statements about what the potential future could be," Brig. Gen. Davoren said of recent political discourse in the region. "There is a lot of discussion about what is actually going to happen on the 10th of December."
Brig. Gen. Davoren said Kosovo appears calm on the ground, but KFOR is constantly reevaluating the situation in the Serb enclave, assessing threats to stability amid the shifting political landscape.
Meanwhile, recent claims about paramilitary activity in Kosovo are making their rounds in the media. Brig. Gen. Davoren said the two most prominent groups discussed in reports are the "Tsar Lazar Guard," a group that has organized patrols in Serbia, according to Kosovo media, and the outlawed Albanian National Army, known as AKSH and branded as a terrorist organization by the U.N. mission in Kosovo.
"One of the TV stations in Kosovo filmed a group of 10 people in black uniforms and masks, supposedly walking along the administrative boundary line to protect Kosovo," Brig. Gen. Davoren said. "There's also been news reports of a reporter attending some induction ceremony where 20 Kosovo Albanians were joining the AKSH in a ceremony so that they could be prepared to defend Kosovo from the invasion of the Tsar Lazar Guard."
Brig. Gen. Davoren said the Tsar Lazar Guard reportedly has vowed to wage war on all Kosovo Albanians and U.N. personnel if Kosovo declares independence. Furthermore, they have publicized their desire to detonate a nuclear bomb in Kosovo.
"I, as Task Force East commander, and we as KFOR, are concerned about these reports; we take them seriously, (and) we go out and we conduct operations to look for these groups," he said. "But what we find is there are an awful lot of these reports, but not much in the way of activity of these groups actually out along the administrative boundary line."
Brig. Gen. Davoren said many similar reports, which often quote local residents who allege they have seen groups of uniformed and armed men around Kosovo, are based on hearsay or otherwise unconfirmed accounts.
"I also have to take into consideration the perceptions of the people that are listening to the stories," he said. "Where I don't find a lot of facts substantiated in reports, those reports still cause folks some anxiety, (and) there is a little bit of tension caused from that anxiety."
The commander said KFOR's mission is to eliminate or mitigate issues early on before they escalate to something bigger. He cited a March 2004 example, when a disputed news report which alleged that three ethnic Albanian children drowned after being chased into a river by a group of angry Serbs, triggered a wave of riots.
"We want to make sure that we take a look at a number of different things that could be trigger events, separate fact from fiction, and then take appropriate measures so that we are able to deal with those," he said.
Since March 2004, KFOR has worked to correct problems identified following the riots that killed at least 36 people, wounded nearly 1,000 others, and destroyed an estimated 110 houses and 16 churches in its trail.
To gauge the milieu in Kosovo, for instance, KFOR troops interact with the local populace during mounted and dismounted patrols, and through liaison monitoring teams, which listen to concerns of coffee shop and restaurant owners, and other local people. Brig. Gen. Davoren said he and other senior leaders interact with village leaders, local priests and Imams, municipality leaders and other elected officials.
"We get a wide cross-section from people who are in positions of power, people who are just your average citizen, and get a feel for what the concerns are - where things are going well, where things are going badly," he said.
Additionally in 2004, nations with forces in Kosovo removed the majority of military caveats that hindered troops' operational capabilities, Brig. Gen. Davoren said. For roughly the past two years, he added, KFOR has rehearsed how troops would smoothly transition from posts around Kosovo, rehearsing scenarios that might require additional NATO reserve troops be brought into Kosovo or the greater Balkan region.
"Right now, the troop levels are sufficient," he said. "There are contingency plans where if additional troops are needed to be brought in, those have been identified."
Brig. Gen. Davoren's comments came a day after NATO's supreme allied commander acknowledged the possibility of quickly raising the force level if needed in Kosovo, which he called NATO's "most volatile" issue.
"There will be those who want to create mischief, and that will be manifested as strife and potentially violence, in Kosovo," Gen. Bantz J. Craddock told reporters at the National Press Club here yesterday. "There will be, then, those who will respond to that, against the advice of, I think, calmer heads to not respond."
The general said, however, that community leaders in Kosovo hope to avoid violence, and that military strategy is in place to maintain stability.
"We have done contingency planning for the best case and the worst case," he said. "I am very comfortable with what we have done."
(John J. Kruzel works for American Forces Press Service)