BRUSSELS Germany's defense minister has said the EU's police force in Kosovo is "on the wrong track" and needs to be completely overhauled, complaining that its failure to do its job properly is placing an unreasonable burden on NATO forces.
Berlin is particularly worried about Kosovo, as with 1,330 troops it is the biggest contributing nation, and, along with the United States, Italy and Austria, foots much of the bill for low-level peacekeeping work.
Western powers formally ended their role overseeing Kosovo in September, four years after it proclaimed independence. But the European Union's police force, EULEX, and a 6,000-strong NATO force remain to deal with occasional ethnic violence.
Speaking ahead of a meeting on Wednesday at which NATO defense ministers were scheduled to discuss Kosovo, Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere said he would push for EULEX to be completely overhauled.
"Germany is not satisfied with the situation," he told reporters on Tuesday evening.
"We need a new start, a new name, a new structure, new people and a new mandate. In any case, it's on the wrong track. We need to sort that out at the EU level."
Unlike NATO, EULEX was not accepted by Serbs as a neutral force, he said, referring to around 50,000-60,000 Serbs in a tiny northern part of Kosovo who reject the independence of the former Serbian province and oppose the Pristina government, challenging NATO and EU troops.
As a result, he said NATO reservists - in particular German, Italian and Austrian - were being forced to do work that should be done by the Kosovo police and EULEX, something he said was "not correct".
"I will propose that we fulfill our tasks there under a consistent brief without permanent reserve units," De Maiziere said as he went into the meeting on Wednesday.
De Maziere's intervention in the debate comes at a time when the 28-member military alliance has been considering cutting troop numbers. Plans to trim the NATO peacekeeping force were put on hold last year after a spate of violence in the north.
If fewer soldiers were needed, NATO should take such a decision, the minister said. "But to act as if we need fewer and then to get the job done through reservists - that is not right," he said.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Wednesday that NATO's force in Kosovo "has done excellent work in maintaining a safe, secure environment for the entire population of Kosovo and will continue to carry out its mandate".
Serbia lost control of Kosovo in 1999 when NATO bombed it to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians by Serb forces fighting a two-year counter-insurgency war.
Landlocked and impoverished, Kosovo has been recognized by 91 countries including the United States and 22 of the EU's 27 members.
Serbia is under pressure from the EU - which it wants to join - to loosen its grip on north Kosovo and to improve relations with Pristina.
(Reporting by Angelia Stricker; Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Writing by Sebastian Moffett; Editing by Andrew Osborn)