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NATO streamlines command structure in Kosovo

Written by: Staff

PRISTINA, Serbia and Montenegro, May 10 (Reuters) NATO today said it had streamlined its command and control structure in Kosovo to respond faster to ethnic violence as a decision nears on the future of the province.

The 17,000-strong force was stung by criticism it responded slowly to riots in March 2004 in which Albanian mobs overran NATO-guarded Serb enclaves, burning homes and churches.

A NATO spokesman said that within the next five days the Kosovo force (KFOR) would complete the switch from a system of four brigades to five ''task forces'' that began in late 2005.

Nineteen people died in the 2004 riots, the worst outbreak of violence since NATO bombing wrested control of Kosovo from Serbia in 1999 and the United Nations took over. KFOR troops have since been given special equipment and training for riot control.

UN and NATO officials have promised there will be no repeat as the major powers steer Serbs and Albanians through delicate negotiations in Vienna on Kosovo's future, which the 90 percent Albanian majority says must be independence.

Under the new structure, the KFOR commander ''can quickly move forces from one place to another in response to any threat while NATO and contributing nations are able to reinforce their troops quickly,'' said KFOR chief spokesman Colonel Pio Sabetta.

''With more usable forces, reserves at all levels and a more effective command and control structure, KFOR will be a more balanced force capable of responding to the needs of the situation in Kosovo.'' The Kosovo Albanians say it's time for independence, seven years since NATO's first ''humanitarian'' war to halt the ethnic cleansing employed by Belgrade in a two-year war with separatist guerrillas.

But Western powers say the two million Albanians must first improve the rights and security of the 100,000 remaining Serbs, a ghettoised minority targeted by sporadic violence.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer makes a one-day trip to the province tomorrow.

Reuters SY RS1838

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