(AP) - Kosovo remains unstable more than two months after it declared independence from Serbia, and NATO forces will need to remain here for years to come, Ireland's defense minister said Wednesday.
The minister, Willie O'Dea, said NATO-led peacekeepers will be busy securing the world's youngest country as tensions remain high between its ethnic Albanian majority and minority Serbs.
"The situation remains quite unstable. More unstable then anticipated," O'Dea told The Associated Press as he visited about 300 Irish troops in southern Kosovo.
He said the 16,000-strong NATO-led peacekeeping force "will be needed here for many, many years to come."
Last month, Serbs clashed with U.N. and NATO troops in the Serb-controlled part of the northern town of Mitrovica, leaving a U.N. policeman dead and dozens of people injured. The U.N. accused Belgrade of orchestrating the violence with the goal of splitting Kosovo along ethnic lines.
NATO troops were called in to quell the violence and pave the way for U.N. staff to return to Kosovo's north. However, European Union officials still have not deployed in Serb areas because of strong resistance from minority Serbs, who claim the entire EU has backed Kosovo's independence.
Serbia considers Kosovo to be the historic cradle of its nation. More than 90 percent of Kosovo's 2 million people are ethnic Albanians.
Ireland has joined the United States, Japan, Canada and most member countries in the European Union in recognizing Kosovo as an independent state.
But Serbia and Russia oppose Kosovo's independence and hope to prevent more countries from recognizing Kosovo as Europe's newest nation, including Slovakia, Spain, Greece and Romania, which have hesitated to do so.
O'Dea said Ireland would continue to play "a central role" in helping Kosovo as it struggles to establish itself as an independent nation.