Source AP ©

New French defense minister visits Kosovo

A new Defense Minister of France has made his first official trip abroad – to Kosovo - where he met his country's soldiers on Monday.

Upon his arrival in Kosovo, Herve Morin visited some 2,800 French peacekeepers stationed in the northern part of Kosovo, where they serve as part of a NATO-led peacekeeping force, said Lt. Col. Reaner Grossman, a spokesman for the force, also known as KFOR.

NATO has patrolled Kosovo since mid-1999 when the province was placed under U.N. administration following an air war that halted a Serb crackdown on independence-seeking ethnic Albanians.

Morin was scheduled to confer later with NATO's commander in Kosovo, German Lt. Gen. Roland Kather. Kather will greet the French minister with a military honor at KFOR headquarters in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, and will brief him on the developments in the province, Grossman said.

For several months, Kosovo has been a major issue for the United States and key European countries, which are in the process of trying to mend differences with Russia over the province's future.

The U.N. Security Council has been divided over the issue, with the United States and key European countries supporting Kosovo's independence, and Russia, traditionally a Serb ally, opposing its secession.

Ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of Kosovo's 2 million people, are demanding independence, while Serbia and the province's Serb minority want Kosovo to remain within its borders.

There are fears that ethnic Albanians are growing impatient, and Western officials have warned that delays in the process could spark renewed violence. The Serb minority, concentrated in the province's north, has threatened to split the areas it dominates from the rest of Kosovo if the province gains independence from Serbia.

The French troops - which are part of NATO's 16,500-strong force - patrol the ethnically divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica, one of the most tense areas in Kosovo.

The town's river, which splits the two communities into a Serb-dominated north and ethnic Albanian south, has been a fault line in violence that has shaken the small territory years after the 1998-99 war.

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