German Defense Minister Peter Struck is on a two-day visit to meet German troops stationed in the Balkans. Germany increased troop numbers there recently as part of a European Union effort to maintain a fragile peace.
Struck on an earlier visit: Political action is needed to boost morale
Struck's visit to the southern Serb province of Kosovo comes almost exactly a year after an outbreak of anti-Serb violence there left 19 dead and hundreds injured. Then, Serb villages were attacked by ethnic Albanians for three days -- while NATO peacekeepers, including those from Germany, did nothing to stop them.
The defense minister's two-day encounter with about 3,000 German troops in Kosovo is primarily meant to boost morale in what many experts say is a hopeless mission. General Klaus Reinhardt, commander of the NATO-led Kosovo force in 1999, said the international community would not be able to end the violence simply sending more troops to the province.
Root causes remain
"Three additional brigades have been sent down there, but the root causes for the riots have not been tackled," Reinhardt said. "Since political and social disenchantment remain, there is bound to be a repeat of the ethnic clashes. For many, it’s one year on and nothing has changed."
Earlier this month, Germany sent an additional 600 troops to Kosovo to calm tensions after ethnic Albanian Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj (photo) resigned and surrendered to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
NATO has around 18,000 peacekeepers in the province and a United Nations mission spokesman claimed last week that the security situation had improved substantially. There are also plans by the UN to start final negotiations on the status of Kosovo this summer -- a decision Struck said was needed as soon as possible.
"We can only help our troops make sense of their mission as long as there is political progress," the German defense minister said. Over the long term, military engagement in Kosovo would be hard to justify if Serbian enclaves were protected without any will on the part of Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo to live together in peace, he added.
Possible reduction in Bosnia
In Bosnia, where Struck will meet with political leaders on Tuesday, the situation is much more stable. That has already led to calls for a substantial reduction in the number of foreign troops stationed there.
The EU took over the Bosnian mission from NATO in December last year. It has maintained troop levels at around 7,000 in what is the EU’s largest such operation to date. But EU officials are reviewing whether troop numbers can be reduced to around 5,000.
The leaders of the EU force, which also includes troops from non-EU countries, describe conditions as peaceful. But they also say that, a decade after the end of the Bosnian war, it's proved impossible to stamp out the ethnic tensions that fuelled the Balkans wars.