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Command Change, Troop Visits Draw Cohen to Europe

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

MUNICH, Germany, May 1, 2000 – Whenever his schedule permits, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen makes time to visit U.S. forces in the field. His latest trip to Europe was no exception.

"It gives me a chance to go out and meet with the troops," the secretary told reporters on the way to Munich. "It's a big morale booster for them, and it is for me as well."

Cohen and his wife, Janet Langhart Cohen, left Washington April 30 for a three-day trip to Germany, Belgium and Kosovo. The main reason for the trip, Cohen said, was to herald Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston as commander in chief, U.S. European Command, and as NATO supreme allied commander Europe and to bid farewell to Ralston's predecessor, Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark.

Ralston, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his wife, Diane, and several family members joined Cohen on the Sunday trans-Atlantic flight aboard an Air Force passenger jet.

In the next few days, Cohen told reporters, he would visit Kosovo and then attend change-of-command ceremonies at U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, and at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Mons, Belgium. He would board Army helicopters in Skopje, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and visit Camp Bondsteel and Camp Monteith in Kosovo.

This trip is the secretary's third to the Balkans in nearly 11 months. Cohen first traveled to Kosovo in June 1999, shortly after the end of NATO's air campaign. He last visited in December, accompanied by a USO group of celebrities and entertainers.

Even so, Cohen said, "I don't get there frequently enough. I try to go whenever I'm in the region," he said. "But you can never go too many times."

This trip, Cohen said he and Army Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint chiefs of Staff, would meet, greet and address the troops. He also planned to confer with Army Brig. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, Task Force Falcon commander, for an "eye-to-eye assessment" and a "local feel" of how the peacekeeping mission is progressing.

About 6,100 U.S. troops are in Kosovo. Another 450 are in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and 10 are supporting mission logistics from Greece. Cohen said visiting troops in the field enables him to learn firsthand what they think and need. He's then in a better position to make judgments and respond to members of the administration and Congress when he returns to Washington.

Maintaining peace in Kosovo is a major undertaking for NATO-led forces deployed there, Cohen said. Checkpoints are manned 24 hours a day. Force protection missions are undertaken throughout the week. Military aircraft fly hundreds of missions.

At present, violence continues to erupt among the residents, Cohen said, but compared to two years ago, the NATO peacekeepers have made much progress. Two years ago, Serb forces were purging ethnic Albanians from the province, and one year ago, he said, NATO was in the middle of an air campaign against Yugoslav military targets. Today, Serb forces are gone, NATO peacekeepers are in place and violence is declining, he noted.

More than a million refugees have returned, Cohen said, as evidence of the mission's achievements to date. NATO forces have confiscated about 20,000 weapons. The Kosovo Liberation Army has reorganized and the Kosovo Protection Corps has been formed.

The level of crime has dropped dramatically from 50 murders a week to five, Cohen said. "Still too many," he noted. While nearly two-thirds of the international police slated to deploy to Kosovo are in place, more help is needed, he said. "We need to have more judges, more courtrooms, more civilian-run institutions organized by international institutions."

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