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NATO Ministers' Meeting Mulls Yugoslav Changes

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

BIRMINGHAM, England, Oct. 10, 2000 – NATO defense ministers focused on the changes in Yugoslavia during their informal Oct. 10 meeting here.

Walter N. Slocombe, U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, briefed reporters following the ministers deliberations.

All of the ministers agreed that the primary credit for the changes lies with the Serb people and opposition groups, he said. They stood up and spoke so strongly, it was impossible for Slobodan Milosevic to steal the election.

Still, while the United States and NATO are encouraged by the changes in Belgrade, they agreed they need to see actions from new Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica before reducing troop levels in the region. One minister said they should drink from the cup of euphoria (over the changes), but not too deeply,' a NATO official said.

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said the alliance looks forward to working with the new government in Belgrade to strengthen democracy and build cooperation with the international community, including on the issue of war criminals.

Slocombe said the United States and its NATO allies are looking forward to the day when Yugoslavia takes its place in Europe. He said the Milosevic regime caused most of the troubles in the Balkans, and with it gone the region's security climate may improve.

Robertson said that with the removal of Milosevic, NATO relations with Russia would probably improve. Stability in the Balkans would lessen tensions between Russia and NATO that grew during Operation Allied Force last year, he said.

Slocombe pointed to encouraging signs in Bosnia. He said the Stabilization Force troop level has dropped from 30,000 to 20,000 with U.S. presence dropping from 6,200 to 4,200. In general, there is a safe and secure environment in Bosnia, he said.

SFOR has provided the security needed for civilian institutions to begin and develop, he said. Too, elections are scheduled in the country shortly and SFOR will provide security, Slocombe noted.

He said the current return rate of refugees in Bosnia is twice what it was in 1999.

Slocombe said the security situation in Kosovo is unsettled, but vastly improved. He said while crime is still a problem, the rate has dropped. Killings, too, have fallen.

Slocombe visited the U.S. sector in Kosovo Oct. 7. He said the U.S. troops in the province are immensely impressive. He said they have good relations with the other forces with them. These include troops from Russia, Greece, the United Arab Emirates, Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania.

Our soldiers are on the streets patrolling and have good contacts with the local people and communities, he said.

Looking ahead, both Kosovo and Bosnia need to further develop civilian structures and concentrate on building multiethnic communities, Slocombe said. Changes in Belgrade may make this easier.

The game has changed, but the game is still going on, he said. The United States will adapt its policies as the situation warrants, he concluded.

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