German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere has used a visit to Pristina to praise the efforts of Bundeswehr soldiers to reduce tensions in Kosovo. This was his third visit to the troops as defense minister.
De Maiziere's began Thursday's visit by meeting with the commander of the NATO-led peacekeeping force KFOR, German General Volker Halbauer. De Maiziere told the general that KFOR's strategy over the past 18 months had helped defuse a potentially explosive situation in the mainly Serb north of the country.
"Through an intelligent mixture of de-escalation and toughness, KFOR has removed all blockades except the one in Mitrovica," de Maiziere said, referring to the one barrier the peacekeeping force is not planning to try to dismantle anytime soon.
The other blockades he referred to are border-crossing posts between Serbia and Kosovo - in the mainly Serb north of the country. An attempt in mid-2011 by the Kosovo authorities to take control of the border posts resulted in Serbs setting up blockades on the streets leading up to them. Clashes broke out on a number of occasions, resulting in injuries to both Serb protesters and NATO peacekeepers.
A 'litmus test' for political talks
Under an agreement reached in European Union-brokered talks between Pristina and Belgrade earlier this month, Kosovo and Serbia have begun implementing joint control of the border crossings in question.
De Maiziere said the implementation of the border-crossing agreement amounted to a "litmus test of the reliability of the political talks" between the two sides.
The defense minister also visited Mitrovica, which remains a divided city, with ethnic Albanians on one side of the Ibar River and Serbs on the other side.
General Halbauer told de Maiziere that it was not worth the risk to try to remove the blockade on the Austerlitz Bridge that separates the two sides.
"If we dismantle this, there will be bloodshed. So I won't do it," the general said.
De Maiziere noted that the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo could not be solved militarily. Without the presence of KFOR, he added, "there would be no political progress either."
The minister later visited Camp Cabra near Zupce, where he had lunch with Bundeswehr soldiers stationed there.
With 1,250 troops, Germany makes up the largest contingent in the 5,600-strong KFOR force, which has been in the territory since a 1999 NATO bombing campaign ended inter-ethnic bloodshed in the former Serbian province.
pfd/dr (AFP, dpa, dapd