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NATO ministers agree that Kosovo peacekeeping force should remain strong

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    BRUSSELS, Belgium — NATO foreign ministers agreed Friday to maintain a strong peacekeeping force in Kosovo to handle any flare-up of violence in the province, which appears poised to move toward independence from Serbia after negotiations failed.
    ‘‘NATO will respond resolutely to any attempts to disrupt the safety and security of any of the people of Kosovo,’’ the ministers said.
    The NATO comments appeared to warn Kosovo’s ethnic-Albanian majority against making a sudden declaration of independence after an expected acknowledgment by mediators from Russia, Europe and the United States that efforts to find a negotiated settlement have reached a dead end.
    Instead of declaring unilateral independence, NATO spokesman James Appathurai urged a ‘‘managed and controlled’’ transition to decide the final status of the breakaway province.
    The NATO statement urged ‘‘both parties to refrain from making acts or statements that could undermine the security situation.’’
    The United States and leading European allies are hoping to revive a plan — rejected by Serbia and its Russian backers — for a gradual, supervised move to statehood. Others — notably Spain, Romania, Slovakia and Greece — are more cautious, fearing that Kosovo independence with agreement from Serbia could encourage separatist movements in other regions.
    There was no progress in narrowing differences with Russia, which strongly backs Serbia’s opposition to Kosovo’s independence. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said allowing a unilateral move by Kosovo toward independence would lead to ‘‘a very slippery downward slope,’’ by setting a precedent for other separatists regions.
    ‘‘It certainly won’t help the stability of Europe,’’ Lavrov told a news conference after talks with his NATO counterparts.
    The NATO allies agreed that NATO’s 16,450 peacekeeping troops could continue their mission in Kosovo under the current U.N. mandate.
    A battalion of German troops has already been sent to Kosovo to strengthen the force, and British, Italian and French units are being held in reserve, ready to move in if there is a new flare-up of violence.
    Talks to establish a united Western position on Kosovo’s future are expected to continue in the margins of an European Union-Africa summit in Lisbon this weekend and at the bloc’s regular year-end summit next week.
    British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said it was essential that Western countries avoid the divisions that prevented them from taking decisive action to halt Balkan bloodshed in the 1990s.
    Kosovo has been run by the United Nations, backed by NATO troops, since 1999 when a bombing campaign by allied warplanes ended a Serb crackdown on the separatists.
    After the failure of four months of internationally mediated talks, Kosovo Albanians say they will declare independence — possibly early in 2008. The U.S. and leading allies would prefer application of the supervised statehood plan, even without a U.N. agreement. Several want any decision on Kosovo’s status delayed until after Serbia’s presidential elections, tentatively scheduled for Jan. 20.
    Lavrov said any decision on Kosovo’s status without Serbia’s agreement will break international law. He called for more talks and earlier this week accused Western nations of hampering efforts to find a negotiated solution by encouraging the separatists.
    Russia and NATO also remain divided over Moscow’s plans to suspend application of a key Cold War-era arms agreement on Dec. 12, partly in response to U.S. plans to install anti-missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. However, Lavrov and NATO officials said talks would continue on both issues.
    In their statement, the NATO ministers acknowledged relations with Russia were in a ‘‘challenging phase.’’ They expressed regret and concern over the announced plan to suspend the arms control treaty and recalled that NATO agreements with Russia were based on respect for democracy and civil liberties.
    Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.

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