Amid signs of growing lawlessness in Kosovo, representatives of 18 major countries and three key international organizations agreed Wednesday to inject new urgency into a massive United Nations effort to impose civilian order and control in the war-damaged province.
Many leaders attending the session at U.N. headquarters praised the oft-criticized world body for "impressive progress" since it took on the task of rebuilding Kosovo nearly three weeks ago.
But there was also a clear awareness--and a detectable sense of impatience--that the U.N. must move quicker to establish a rule of law in a province that is being overwhelmed by waves of returning refugees but is virtually devoid of basic government institutions.
Since the withdrawal of Yugoslav security forces last month, the initial elements of the NATO-led peacekeeping force have been the sole authority in Kosovo, a province of Yugoslavia's main republic, Serbia.
But with less than half of its about 50,000-member Kosovo Force, or KFOR, deployed so far, the peacekeeping effort is thinly stretched.
"You cannot have security if lawlessness is taking place," said Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, who attended the meeting. "There is looting going on, there are criminal activities taking place."
KFOR's responsibility, Axworthy said, is "to maintain as much order as they can until the civilian police operation is up and running."
The task of building a civil society in Kosovo constitutes one of the largest and most ambitious such exercises undertaken by the U.N. It includes, among other things, establishing a political system, providing police and fire services, stabilizing the currency, delivering the mail, providing health care and collecting the trash.
"It's clearly a huge challenge ahead of us," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told reporters after the four-hour meeting. "I think it behooves us all to keep pressing the United Nations and other organizations to keep up the pace."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan convened Wednesday's conference to galvanize support for what is expected to be a long and difficult process that will take the U.N. into unchartered legal territory. He estimated that it could take a decade to fully rebuild Kosovo.
Annan is expected shortly to name a European as his special representative to head the Kosovo mission, while an American--most likely veteran Balkans expert James P. "Jock" Covey--will serve as chief deputy.
The presence of the foreign ministers from the U.S. and the world's richest nations turned the meeting in part into a pledging conference.
For example, the job of establishing a civilian police presence in the province got a substantial boost, with countries nearly doubling the total commitment of officers from about 1,000 to more than 1,900.
The U.N.'s goal is to establish an interim civilian police force of 3,100 personnel, made up of officers from member countries. That force would serve until local recruits could be found and trained.
Albright said the U.S. intends to send 450 law enforcement officers and 100 instructors to the region. The Los Angeles Police Department said Wednesday it had no plans to provide officers, though a few command officers planning to retire reportedly are considering taking Kosovo jobs.
U.S. officials also indicated that a group of foreign and local judges will be assembled to create the framework of a legal system, including the appointment of a permanent judiciary. Many of those selected are expected to be former ethnic Albanian judges who lost their jobs in the province about a decade ago after Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic restricted Kosovo's autonomy and reimposed Serbian-dominated rule from Belgrade.
The current justice situation is so dire in the province that suspects arrested by KFOR have been set free after 48 hours because no one was available to arraign them.
Some diplomats expressed concern that the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army, virtually the only organized local entity in the province, might try to create a political monopoly before the U.N. is able to establish a multi-party process for democratic elections.
"One of the biggest issues is not to let the KLA usurp political power," Axworthy said. "It's important to start a parallel political process."
A senior U.S. official traveling with Albright said the goal is to conduct elections for a Kosovo-wide government within a year to 18 months.
But the official admitted that most of those trying to deal with the aftermath of the war have been caught off guard by the pace of events, including the return of nearly 500,000 ethnic Albanian refugees since North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces began entering the province June 12.
"It's absolutely remarkable how fast this is all happening," the official said. "It's beyond all expectations."
Despite the sense of urgency, Annan found himself unable to complete the politically sensitive task of picking a candidate to run the demanding Kosovo mission. Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello is serving in that capacity on a temporary basis.
There were visible differences concerning possible reconstruction assistance to Serbia so long as Milosevic remains president of the Yugoslav federation. Russia reportedly was among the group arguing that the Serbian people should not be punished for Milosevic's actions.
The U.S. took a much harder line.
"We'll do nothing to bolster Milosevic and his cronies," Albright said.
But Annan warned that, if Serbia is omitted from any regional development plan, "then we are going to have a real challenge of reconstruction of the economy of southeastern Europe with the big hole of Serbia in the middle."