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GRAFENWÖHR, Germany -- For the first time in a decade, active-duty soldiers will deploy to the small Balkan nation of Kosovo as the American contribution to the long-running NATO peacekeeping mission.
The 525th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade out of Fort Bragg, N.C., will fly to Europe in April for training in Hohenfels before deploying to Kosovo, according to a U.S. Army Forces Command spokesman. It will be joined by smaller National Guard, reserve and other active-duty units to fill out capabilities, according to the official.
The return of active-duty U.S. troops follows a decade of deployments by National Guard and reserve soldiers in place of units needed in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and the drawdown currently taking place in Afghanistan, more active-duty soldiers have become available for the Kosovo mission, according to the spokesman.
A unit with the 1st Infantry Division made the last active-duty deployment, between November 2002 and July 2003, according to U.S. Army Europe.
The deployment, known as Kosovo Force 17, will anchor Multinational Battlegroup-East, one of two NATO formations tasked with maintaining security and freedom of movement in the ethnically divided country. According to USAREUR, it will be slightly smaller than the current American deployment, which is built around a National Guard maneuver brigade and number close to 800 soldiers according to NATO.
Thirteen years after 50,000 NATO troops entered Kosovo on the heels of a bombing campaign to stop Serbian militants from overrunning its former province, more than 5,100 allied troops remain to discourage tensions between ethnic Serbs in the north and the majority ethnic Albanians. The U.S. contingent is the largest, numbering 773 service members.
After Kosovo declared independence in 2008, KFOR assumed the additional task of building the Kosovo Security Force, a lightly armed civil protection force.
Tensions in the country occasionally flare along ethnic lines, most recently in the north, where an ethnic-Serbian community rejects the government in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, and receives financial support from neighboring Serbia.
After the Albanian government attempted to assert control of the border between northern Kosovo and Serbia in 2011, Serbs erected barriers across key roads in the region, including the bridge connecting the divided city of Mitrovica. Efforts by KFOR to remove the barricades were occasionally met by violence, including gunfire.
Recent EU-mediated talks between Serbian and Kosovo prime ministers about normalizing relations have prompted optimism that a negotiated solution might lead to the exit of NATO troops.