Governor thanks soldiers for keeping peace

By Amy Forliti

Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — Gov. Tim Pawlenty was in Kosovo on Saturday, thanking members of the Minnesota National Guard for keeping peace during a tense but "historic" period of transition since Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia.

"The underlying tensions between the Albanians and the Serbs appear to be in check, more or less, at the moment," Pawlenty said Saturday during a conference call with reporters. But he and Lt. Col. Michael Funk said the situation could change at any moment.

Pawlenty headed for the former Yugoslav province Friday, leaving Minnesota earlier than planned because of bad weather and airplane logistics.


He told reporters the primary purpose of his trip was to tell troops that "Minnesotans are thinking of them, and we are grateful for them." He spent Saturday touring parts of Kosovo by helicopter and by vehicle. He also attended a town hall meeting where Guard members discussed topics ranging from tuition reimbursements to whether employers could be required to provide more flexibility for spouses of deployed soldiers.

Pawlenty said he’ll take some of those concerns back to Minnesota for more research to see whether any policy changes could be made.

The 412 members of the Mankato-based Task Force Bayonet — also known as the 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry — have been in Kosovo since October as part of NATO peacekeeping operations. The Minnesota unit is part of about 1,400 U.S. troops stationed in Kosovo and part of a larger international force there of between 15,000 to 16,000 troops.

The Minnesota unit has training in crowd and riot control and is working to make sure members of the minority Serbian community are safe. Many Serbs fear violence in newly independent Kosovo, which is 90 percent ethnic Albanian.

Funk said the Minnesota troops were out in full force when Kosovo declared its independence on Feb. 17, and they provided auxiliary security during elections in November. The unit is also responsible for security in the town of Vitina.

The unit is bracing for possible tension around May 11, when Serbia will have parliamentary elections.

The unit "is prepared to handle any situation," Funk said. NATO has forces available to help in a worst-case scenario, he said.

This was Pawlenty’s second trip to Kosovo.

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