London (CNSNews.com) - NATO forces are, for the time being, to remain in Kosovo and elsewhere in the Balkans despite the fall of Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic, Alliance Secretary-General George Robertson said Tuesday.
In a statement following talks in central England between NATO defense ministers, Robertson said NATO remained committed to promoting regional stability and security in the Balkans.
"We will continue to fulfill our mandate to guarantee security in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo through the NATO-led operations SFOR and KFOR," Robertson said.
NATO countries supply the majority of the 36,000 peacekeepers deployed in Kosovo following last year's Alliance bombing campaign aimed at ending Milosevic's policies of alleged ethnic cleansing against the ethnic Albanian community. The United States is the single largest contributor to KFOR. Another 10,000 support troops are based in Macedonia and Albania.
Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia, is under an interim UN administration, but its Albanian majority is pushing for full independence from Belgrade.
A 20,000-strong stability force, SFOR, remains inside Bosnia-Herzegovina to police the Dayton peace accord, signed in 1995 by Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian leaders.
"It is too early to identify exactly how the changes in Yugoslavia will affect the region," Robertson said, "but rest assured KFOR and SFOR, our troops in Kosovo and Bosnia, will continue to provide a bedrock of security and stability as long as it is needed."
The NATO ministers welcomed the transfer of power in Belgrade.
"We look forward to the day when a newly democratic Federal Republic of Yugoslavia will again take its place alongside its neighbors in the Euro-Atlantic community," Robertson added.
The 19-member Alliance was anxious to see policies by the new government to strengthen democracy and restore cooperation with the international community - "including on the issues of war criminals."
The latter is a reference to the indictments handed down by the international tribunal in The Hague for Milosevic and five other Serbian leaders accused of war crimes in Kosovo.
Yugoslavia's new president, Vojislav Kostunica, already has ruled out extraditing the suspects.
Kostunica, a nationalist, also made it clear that he does not support any plans by Montenegro - Serbia's small sister republic in the federation - or by Kosovo for independence.
In a meeting in Belgrade Tuesday with French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, the new president called for the safe return of Serbs and other non-Albanians to their homes in Kosovo.
Kostunica and Vedrine also discussed the European Union's offer of emergency humanitarian aid to help rebuild Serbia's war-ravaged infrastructure.
France, which holds the rotating EU presidency, has invited Kostunica to attend a summit of EU member states' leaders in France on Friday.
On Monday, the EU announced the immediate lifting of all sanctions against Yugoslavia except for those aimed specifically at Milosevic and his associates. Oil and air embargos were immediately lifted.
The US administration says it will send a senior diplomat to Belgrade soon.