BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Secretary of State Colin Powell, making his first official visit to NATO headquarters since trading his uniform for civilian clothes, reassured alliance colleagues Tuesday that the United States did not intend to proceed alone in withdrawing its forces from the Balkans or developing a national missile shield.
At a meeting called so he could introduce himself to his 18 fellow foreign ministers, Powell addressed mounting European anxieties that a rift is opening in the Atlantic alliance over issues including U.S. military deployments overseas, plans for a European rapid reaction force and NATO expansion.
At a news conference after the foreign ministers' meeting, Powell said he endorsed the most significant action taken Tuesday by the NATO leaders: A decision to allow Yugoslav soldiers and Serbian security forces to return to a buffer zone now separating them from alliance forces in Kosovo. Powell said he agreed with the approach, announced moments earlier by NATO Secretary General George Robertson, to allow a "conditioned" return of Yugoslav-led forces once the alliance had taken precautions, observers had been deployed and Belgrade authorities had adopted measures to reassure the ethnic Albanian population in the area.
The move to allow the Yugoslav troops and Serbian Interior Ministry police back into the "ground safety zone" represents the first concession to Belgrade since the end of the 1999 NATO air campaign, which was prompted by the repression of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority by the regime of former president Slobodan Milosevic. The three-mile wide zone is now patrolled only by Serbian police.
NATO officials have grown increasingly alarmed in recent weeks by the activity of ethnic Albanian militants taking advantage of the power vacuum, particularly in the Presevo Valley, which is adjacent to the zone controlled by U.S. forces. In his meeting with the NATO foreign ministers, Powell quickly tackled fears prompted by George W. Bush's campaign comments last year that he would pull U.S. forces out of NATO peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo and leave the burden to European soldiers. Powell said that the administration would discuss reductions in U.S. forces with other NATO members and would not act in a way that could undercut the peacekeeping missions.
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