London (CNSNews.com) - The United States will not withdraw troops from peacekeeping operations in the Balkans until the time is right for all NATO-led forces to leave, President Bush said in Kosovo Tuesday.
Addressing U.S. troops at Camp Bondsteel during a flying visit to the U.N.-administered Yugoslav province, Bush allayed European concerns prompted during his election campaign by talk of a scaled-down American involvement in the region.
"America and allied forces came into Bosnia and Kosovo ... together, and we will leave together," he said, adding: "Our goal is to hasten the day when peace is self-sustaining, when local democratically elected authorities can assume full responsibility, and when NATO forces can go home."
In a separate statement released during his visit, the president said: "We will not draw down our forces in Bosnia or Kosovo precipitously or unilaterally."
Camp Bondsteel in southern Kosovo is home to most of the more than 6,000 U.S. troops participating in the NATO-led Kosovo Force. KFOR also comprises troops from NATO's other 18 members, as well as from 18 non-NATO nations, including Russia.
In Bosnia, the U.S. also contributes forces to the 20,000-strong NATO-led Stability Force, SFOR, providing security backup for the implementation of the 1995 Dayton peace accords.
Last October Condoleezza Rice - then foreign policy advisor to the former Texas governor, and now the president's national security advisor - said that Bush would, if elected, pull U.S. troops out of the Balkans.
Rice said Europeans should bear the burden of peacekeeping in Europe, while the U.S. would focus on other potential trouble spots, in Asia and the Persian Gulf.
Bush warns ethnic Albanians
Bush also used Tuesday's visit to warn Kosovar Albanians against supporting their ethnic brethren involved in the conflict in neighboring Macedonia.
"Those here in Kosovo who support the insurgency in Macedonia are hurting the interests of ethnic Albanians throughout the region," he said. "The people of Kosovo should focus on Kosovo."
Claiming discrimination at the hands of the Slavic majority, ethnic Albanian rebels in Macedonia have been fighting against government forces for the past five months. A two-week-old NATO-brokered ceasefire has been looking increasingly shaky in recent days.
NATO entered Kosovo to protect ethnic Albanians from repression by Serbs, but the West has made it clear Albanian rebels in Macedonia should not expect similar support for a struggle many believe is aimed at incorporating Albanian areas of Macedonia and Serbia into Kosovo, and eventually into a "greater Albania."
Bush left Albanian insurgents in Macedonia in no doubt about his view of their activities: "Ethnic extremists are still stoking the flames of intolerance and inciting violence, hoping to subvert democracy, redraw borders, or advance criminal pursuits."
He called on all parties to uphold the ceasefire, and reiterated America's commitment to finding a political settlement, "one that addresses the legitimate grievances of the Albanian population while protecting Macedonia's sovereignty and territorial integrity, its political unity, and its democratic future."
NATO Plays Down Bush-Gore Dispute Over US Troops In Balkans (Oct 23, 2000)