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NATO to reopen north Kosovo base

NATO officials have announced the alliance's plans to reopen an old base in northern Kosovo, which is awaiting a decision on its final status as an autonomous province of Serbia or an independent nations.

Alliance spokesman Colonel Pio Sabetta said NATO troops may return to the base as early as this month.

He said the 17,000-strong KFOR force planned to reopen an old Belgian base in the north, a strip of land adjoining central Serbia.

Sabetta said that though the last NATO base in the north had been closed long ago, Kosovo Force (KFOR) peacekeepers had maintained "mobile facilities", or patrols there.

The plans were announced amid UN-sponsored talks to determine Kosovo's final status.

The province's ethnic Albanian majority is pressing for independence from Serbia, while Serbian authorities are calling for greater autonomy, but have rejected independence.

The Serbian province has been under UN administration since NATO-led troops ended a military campaign in the province by Yugoslav government forces in 1999.

So far, there have been three rounds of talks on Kosovo's status, with no official agreement reached.

Serbian officials estimate that about 200,000 Serbs have left their homes over the past seven years and settled in Serbia.

The Serbian government is seeking autonomy for Serbian municipalities in Kosovo. The ethnic Albanian Kosovo delegation wants the central power to have more influence over the Serbian municipalities.

In late March, Albert Rohan, the deputy UN envoy for Kosovo status talks, ruled out any kind of autonomy for the province's northern region, home to Kosovo's ethnic Serb minority.

Rohan said that autonomy for northern Kosovo would not be considered at a time when the future status of the UN-administered province was being discussed.

Also on Thursday, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) head Soren Jessen-Petersen said that UNMIK was preparing to leave the province once its future status is defined.

Both UN and NATO have reduced their presence in Kosovo, though ethnic tensions are still high, with most violence directed against minority Serbs.

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