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Spain Flexible Over Kosovo Withdrawal Timetable

Spanish soldiers secure a bridge in Mitrovica in March 2008
MADRID (Reuters) -- Spain's timetable for the withdrawal of its 600 troops from Kosovo is flexible, the prime minister's spokesman said on March 22, reacting to NATO criticism of Spanish plans to withdraw the troops by the end of summer.

"Defense Minister Carmen Chacon will meet NATO's secretary-general next week to explain the reasons for the withdrawal and to reach a joint decision on a timetable," the spokesman said.

"The decision to leave has been made, but we can be flexible over the timetable, be it one year, 18 months or eight months."

The spokesman's comment marked a shift from the remark by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero on March 20 that the troops would leave Kosovo within the next four or five months.

Zapatero had been confirming Chacon's announcement of the withdrawal plan on March 19.

The announcement was criticized by NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer for not having been previously agreed within the KFOR peacekeeping alliance, and the United States said it was "deeply disappointed" by the Spanish decision. Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia last year, has been recognised by 22 of the 27 European Union member states.

Spain is one of the five -- along with Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia, and Romania -- that has refused to recognise Kosovo as independent because of fears this might cause trouble in sensitive regions of its own.