By Mark Lowen
BBC News, Pristina
Rasmussen aims to lower the number of Nato troops in Kosovo
A phased withdrawal of Nato troops from Kosovo will only be made if the security situation allows, Nato's new secretary general has said.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen denied a plan to withdraw peacekeepers was premature and said a decision would be based on military and political advice.
The former Danish prime minister was speaking to the BBC on his first visit to Kosovo as Nato chief.
He is meeting political leaders as well as senior members of the Nato force.
"Reductions will take place in accordance with continued improvements in the security situation," Mr Rasmussen told the BBC.
"We will definitely not take decisions that have a negative impact on the security in Kosovo."
Mr Rasmussen announced in his recent inaugural speech that, by the end of his five-year mandate, the 14,000 Nato troops currently stationed in Kosovo would be reduced to a "small reaction force" or withdrawn altogether.
He has had to perform a delicate balancing act during this trip: reiterating his aim of a phased withdrawal of Nato troops, while not alarming the population of Kosovo that still partly relies on the alliance to keep the peace.
An initial draw-down is expected to begin next year when the force numbers will drop to 10,000.
Then, the secretary general said, a staggered reduction will continue if the security situation continues to improve.
The plan is for Kosovan government bodies to take on many roles that Nato now performs: controlling volatile areas, responding to the isolated clashes that still occur and guarding the northern borders with Serbia.
But the plan faces stiff opposition from Kosovan Serbs and the government in Belgrade, which refuse to cooperate with structures that imply the recognition of a Kosovan state.
Mr Rasmussen said his overriding goal was for the western Balkans as a whole to move closer to Nato and European membership.
Kosovo is keen on both but faces several hurdles along the way - not least the fact that five EU states have still not recognised Kosovo as an independent country.
Fifty thousand Nato troops entered Kosovo in 1999 after an intensive 78-day air campaign against the then Yugoslav government of Slobodan Milosevic.
The bombing was intended to stop a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Kosovo at the time.
The crisis resulted in hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians fleeing their homes as Serb forces attempted to reimpose Yugoslav rule.
Ethnic Albanian separatists had launched reprisal attacks against the Serbs. The alliance decided it required swift action.
Kosovo is now in a transitional phase - moving away from dependence on international peacekeepers, instead training up its own structures, capable of filling Nato's place.
The recently-formed Kosovo Security Force will comprise 2,500 lightly-armed soldiers by next year. They will work alongside the Kosovan Police Force and the European Union rule of law mission - Eulex - to maintain security as Nato draws down.
Out on recent Nato patrol in the northern city of Mitrovica, it was clear the force felt ready to start pulling back.
The area is ethnically mixed, with many parts dominated by Serbs vehemently opposed to Kosovan independence.
The city has been a frequent flashpoint over the years and there are still isolated clashes. But the situation has calmed significantly.
As we walked past a tower block housing Serbs and Albanians together, Captain Pierre Sandrin struggled to remember a time when Nato troops had had to actively intervene in a dispute over the last few months.
"There was a quarrel about a month ago, when the police had to call for our back-up," he said.
"But very soon after we arrived, it was defused. Things are pretty peaceful now."
In the Serb enclaves north of the Ibar river, which divides Mitrovica, the goal of a multi-ethnic Kosovo still seems far away.
Serbian flags flutter above doorways and the graffiti bears the Serbian national slogan: "Only unity saves the Serbs".
Jovica, an ethnic Serb who runs a small wooden roadside kiosk selling cigarettes and snacks, told me life remains tense and that he feels in constant danger of being evicted by Albanian returnees.
I asked him what he thought about the continued Nato presence.
"I feel much safer with them here," he said. "If they leave, it will be very hard."
Peaceful - for now
Albanians in general have a more positive view of Nato's planned withdrawal. For them, it would be a recognition of Kosovo's ability to stand on its own two feet.
But across the unofficial dividing line between communities in the Mitrovica neighbourhood of Bosnia Mahalla, Daradan, an Albanian market-seller, warns that the situation is still volatile and that conflict can flare up at any time.
"This is the most dangerous street in the whole of Kosovo," he said.
"It is peaceful for now, but we can have trouble from one moment to the next."
It has taken time for Kosovans to accept the Nato mission here.
Troops have had to rebuild the trust of the local population after they were accused of failing to curb serious inter-ethnic clashes in 2004 that left 19 dead.
But they are now seen as an important part of the growing stability of Kosovo and people feel apprehensive about what life will be like after they have gone.