PRISTINA (Kosovo), Oct 7: The United States will keep troops in the Nato peacekeeping operation in Kosovo until at least late 2009, Defence Secretary Robert Gates said on Tuesday.

Gates, the highest-ranking US official to visit Kosovo since it declared independence, pledged to help build Kosovo’s security forces by providing equipment and training.

“We got confirmation that the US administration will support the building of the Kosovo security force,” Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu told reporters.

Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority declared independence from Serbia on Feb 17 in a move that had western backing but was rejected by Serbia and its ally Russia.

The Pentagon chief met Kosovo’s president and prime minister and discussed efforts to integrate minority communities and secure recognition for Kosovo’s independence.

Some 47 countries have recognised Kosovo’s independence, including the United States and most European Union countries.

Sejdiu said he expected regional neighbours to recognise the independence declaration, including Montenegro and Macedonia.

“Very soon we will have new recognitions. A lot of countries are in the process of recognising Kosovo,” he said.

Serbian officials said that unless there are new talks on Kosovo’s status, they might push for partition — a plan Gates rejected. “I do not believe partition is a solution now or at any time in the future,” he said. “The United States supports the territorial integrity of Kosovo.”

RUSSIA FOCUS: Gates said the aim of his trip was to visit US soldiers.

No US defence secretary has been to Kosovo since 2001.

He rejected suggestions that the trip was meant to send any message to Russia, which opposed Kosovo’s independence and has been locked in conflict with the West since going to war with Georgia in August.

Russia has since recognised Georgia’s breakaway regions as independent, a move widely seen as a response to the US position on Kosovo.

“I don’t consider Kosovo Russia’s backyard,” Gates told reporters when asked how Russia should respond to his visit. “My primary purpose in going to Kosovo is to visit the American troops there.”

Gates’ stop in Kosovo starts a week of meetings with European defence ministers expected to focus on Russian military intervention in Georgia and fears among ex-Soviet states that Moscow’s actions could signal renewed aggression in the region.

Relations between the United States and Russia have been deteriorating steadily for more than two years, driven in part by disputes over a US missile defence system in former Soviet-allied territory and Russia’s resumption of Cold War-era military exercises.

The United States has struggled since the conflict in Georgia to find a balance between supporting small democracies in the region and keeping Russia engaged on important global issues, such as the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme.

“We have to figure out the right path in terms of the reality that we have to do business with Russia on important issues but at the same time convey the message that it can’t be business as usual after what happened in Georgia,” Gates said.

Gates said US participation in the Nato force in Kosovo was important to European allies, and that he had approved a troop rotation that guarantees a US presence until at least October 2009.

The US commander in Kosovo, Brig Gen Larry Kay, said rotations were planned that would keep US forces in the country through 2010 as well.—Reuters