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Balkans: New NATO Chief Says Alliance Remains Committed To Regional Security

  • Julia Geshakova --> Prague, 16 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer chose the Balkans for his first trip abroad since taking over as chief of the alliance less than two weeks ago.

Arriving in Kosovo today, de Hoop Scheffer said his visit is intended to support the NATO-led peacekeeping mission and the UN administration of the province:

"I have come here in one of my first days in office to show the continued commitment of NATO, in other words of KFOR, to Kosovo. We think it has played an important role and will still have to play an important role in the run-up to the important events which are going to take place in Kosovo," de Hoop Scheffer said.

De Hoop Scheffer said that despite planned troops reductions, NATO remains committed to security in the region.

The alliance plans to reduce troops levels in the NATO-led Stabilization Force in Bosnia (SFOR) from 12,000 to around 7,000. Troops in Kosovo (KFOR) will be down to 17,500 from around 20,000 at present. De Hoop Scheffer said the different troops reductions are warranted by the different security situations.
"On Karadzic, I mean, he can run, but he cannot hide forever."

"A decision in principle has been made that the [European] Union will take over the mission, will take over SFOR, possibly towards the end of this year. In Kosovo, of course, it is a different matter. KFOR is here and KFOR, as I have said before, is here to stay because KFOR shows the ongoing NATO commitment for the security and stability in Kosovo," de Hoop Scheffer said.

In Sarajevo yesterday, the secretary-general said the possible transfer of the mission's command to the European Union will not jeopardize security.Postwar Bosnia, de Hoop Scheffer said, is the best proof that reconciliation and reconstruction are possible, following the Balkans wars of the early 1990s.

Bosnia hopes to join NATO's Partnership for Peace (PFP) program later this year. Adnan Terzic, chairman of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Council of Ministers, said the secretary-general's visit is a "great encouragement."

"I think the discussions we had will certainly result in the Bosnia-Herzegovina government, with help from the NATO Council, SFOR, and individual representatives of the international community, fulfilling its pledge to carry out planned reforms in the military forces -- and that in June, at the NATO summit in Istanbul, we will be accepted into the Partnership for Peace program," Terzic said.

De Hoop Scheffer said progress toward PFP membership depends not only on military reforms but also on closer cooperation in the hunt for those indicted for war crimes.

Eight years after the end of the war, indicted Bosnian Serb war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic are still at large. SFOR earlier this week carried out the latest in a series of unsuccessful searches for Karadzic.De Hoop Scheffer said catching Karadzic is the responsibility of local authorities:

"On Karadzic, I mean, he can run, but he cannot hide forever. And do realize and let me stress that again that you can link the hunt for Mr. Karadzic and others to the downsizing of SFOR, but you shouldn't do that, because it's the first responsibility of the authorities in this country," de Hoop Scheffer said.

Bosnian authorities have said they cannot arrest Karadzic and Mladic on their own.

In Kosovo today, de Hoop Scheffer had a similar message, telling the political leadership they have a big responsibility for Kosovo's future. The NATO chief has meetings scheduled later today with Harri Holkeri, the head of the UN mission in Kosovo, and with Kosovo government officials. He will also visit the town of Obilic, the scene last year of the brutal murder of three elderly Serbs, which was blamed on ethnic Albanians.