London, 11 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Officials from NATO member states are saying that the alliance will seek to prevent a "security vacuum" in Kosovo during the expected withdrawal of 40,000 Serbian forces and the arrival in the province of an international peacekeeping force.
Addressing a Defence Ministry briefing in London today, British Armed Forces Minister Doug Henderson listed preventing any vacuum as among the principle objectives, with NATO forces preparing to enter the southern Serbian province early tomorrow.
"The international peacekeeping force must be quickly and carefully installed in its role. There must be no security vacuum in Kosovo, and they must see to it that all the people of Kosovo must be protected, Kosovar Albanians and Kosovar Serbs."
Henderson said the force must ensure that all the people of Kosovo -- both Albanians and Serbs -- must be protected. Under the peace agreement reached with Belgrade, NATO undertook that guerrillas of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) would be demilitarized.
He said the incoming peacekeeping troops will have to cope with danger of minefields laid by Serb forces which will need to unidentified and cleared. Unexploded munitions are another hazard.
The deployment of up to 50,000 peacekeepers follows conclusion of a military-technical agreement by NATO and Yugoslav military commanders earlier this week. The agreement calls for a Serb pullout, and the suspension of NATO's 78-day campaign of air strikes aimed at halting Belgrade's ethnic cleansing of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority.
It also follows passage of a UN Security Council resolution
giving permission for the insertion of the peacekeeping force -- known as KFOR.
Meanwhile, Russian troops moved into Serbia today, apparently on their way to Kosovo. NATO officials said that some 200 Russian troops had crossed the border from Bosnia, where they have been taking part in a NATO-led peacekeeping force.
In Sarajevo, NATO spokesman Major David Scanlon said the Russian soldiers would return to Bosnia after preparing for the arrival of a more permanent Russian contingent in Kosovo.
Scanlon described the Russian move as "not unexpected," saying the Russian commander had been ordered by his superiors to deploy an advance party in Kosovo.
But in Washington, U.S. Vice President Al Gore said that the U.S. had been given what he called "absolute assurances" that the Russians would not move into Kosovo unilaterally. Gore said the Russians would not enter Kosovo until arrangements had been worked out for their participation in a unified command.
Moscow, which helped broker the Kosovo peace deal, has always insisted that it will not put its peacekeeping troops under NATO command.
Two days of U.S.-Russian military talks in Moscow have sought, unsuccessfully so far, to work out an arrangement for Russian participation in the international peace force for Kosovo. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who has led the American side in the talks, said today that he does not expect any immediate resolution to the issue.
Russian Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, Moscow's top military official in the talks, said today that if Russia is not given its own peacekeeping sector in the province, it will seek to bypass NATO and work out a separate arrangement with Yugoslavia.
At the British Defence Ministry briefing in London, Air Marshall Ian Day, the deputy chief of defense staff, said that while NATO air forces have halted their bombing of Yugoslavia, they remain active.
"Air power remains an important deterrent element, and the task of the air forces is not yet over. They will continue to carry out monitoring, surveillance, and reconnaissance patrols, using airborne control aircraft, manned reconnaissance aircraft, and unmanned aerial vehicles such as the British Army's Phoenix, to ensure verification and compliance. Combat aircraft will also remain poised to offer direct support to the ground forces if that should be required, and they are also rapidly ready to restart the bombing campaign if [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic renegs on the undertaking which he has given to NATO and the international community."
The German parliament today overwhelmingly approved increasing German participation in the Kosovo peacekeeping force from 6,000 to 8,500 troops. The vote was 505 to 24.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told the Bundestag (lower house) that policing the peace in Kosovo would be the postwar German military's most dangerous mission.