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Austrian, German soldiers on their way to Kosovo

NATO security forces in Kosovo view the situation there as unstable even more than a decade after the end of open war there. That's why 550 German and 150 Austrian troops are on their way to tense northern Kosovo.

It is not the first time German and Austrian soldiers of both sexes are being sent to the Balkans. Since August 2011, Germany, Austria and Italy have formed an Operational Reserve Force (ORF) designed to provide support to the NATO-led peacekeeping Kosovo Force, known as KFOR, on demand.

Erhard Drews(Photo: Uwe Zucchi dpa/lhe)

Drews sees an ongoing need for KFOR

German Major General Erhard Drews, a KFOR commander, explained the reserve troops' upcoming mission to DW.

"They are responsible for a large part of the north," he said, "maintaining security, stability and freedom of movement."

That's no small task, since northern Kosovo is primarily inhabited by Serbs who want to break off from the rest of the territory.

Legacy of war

Following bloody conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s and the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Kosovo was put under the protection and administration of the United Nations in 1999. In 2008, a majority of Albanians living in Kosovo declared the establishment of an independent, self-standing republic. While many countries, including Germany, recognized the Republic of Kosovo, the Serbian government in Belgrade has not done so up to today, viewing Kosovo as a province of Serbia.

Serbian barricades in northern Kosovo (Photo: dpa)

Serbian barricades in northern Kosovo

This political conflict, taking place mainly at the border between Serbia and Kosovo, threatens to turn into ethnic conflict. Nationalist Serbs have set up barricades to obstruct police and customs officials working for Kosovo's predominantly Albanian government. At the same time, nationalist Serbs are hampering the work of the roughly 2,000 police, judges and customs officials in the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo, known as EULEX Kosovo. The mission is charged with helping Kosovo authorities establish a functioning administration, judiciary and police force.

Hazards remain

Drews said the border conflict is not just about politics.

"It is about illegal trafficking of all kinds," he said, including "weapons, drugs, and human trafficking. When these illegal businessmen get scared - when their business model is in danger - they don't shy away even from deadly force."

In June 2011, two German soldier were shot as KFOR troops dismantled a Serbian roadblock. Drews emphasized that was an isolated case. He said 95 percent of the Serbian population in northern Kosovo are not interested in an open conflict.

The region nevertheless remains unstable as the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo is at a standstill.

Kosovo Serbs clash with German army soldiers serving under the auspices of the NATO peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, as the NATO troops work to remove a roadblock near the village of Jagnjenica, Kosovo, Monday, Nov. 28, 2011.(Photo:Zveki/AP/dapd)

Kosovo Serbs clash with German troops in 2011

"As long as there is no solution there, and as long as there are no military security forces," Drews said, "conflict will always recur on the local level."

Ongoing mission

In 1999, after the end of the Kosovo War, KFOR troops under NATO leadership were stationed in Kosovo with the original aim of guaranteeing a safe return for the many refugees who had fled the region. The number of soldiers decreased in the course of the year, and about 6,200 KFOR troops remain in Kosovo today. About 5,500 of them are regular troops and 700 are from ORF reserves.

According to Drews, KFOR reviews the security situation every two to three months. KFOR and high NATO authorities recently decided that the 700 reserve forces cannot yet be disbanded. The German and Austrian soldiers will thus be relieving currently deployed Italian troops who are serving until the end of September.

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