Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld praised U.S. peacekeepers in Kosovo on Tuesday for helping secure peace there and made no mention of sentiment in Washington for reducing overseas troop deployments.
On the first visit to Kosovo by a senior figure in the Bush administration, he spoke to a gathering of several hundred cheering army soldiers in a tent at the main U.S. base in the Yugoslav province, saying their job was "truly a noble calling."
Rumsfeld, on a six-day European tour, did not refer to the debate over the role of U.S. peacekeepers in Kosovo, a de facto international protectorate since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's 1999 bombing campaign to halt Belgrade's repression of the province's ethnic Albanian majority.
The United States has about 10,000 troops in NATO peacekeeping operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, but the Bush administration is eager to scale back all overseas deployments.
U.S. reports last month that Rumsfeld was pushing to withdraw troops from Bosnia caused concern in a country struggling to heal the ethnic divide after its 1992-95 war.
But the Bush administration has toned down its preelection rhetoric, assuring NATO allies recently that the U.S. would not unilaterally withdraw peacekeeping troops and would consult with the allies on any drawdown.
In his speech at Camp Bondsteel, Rumsfeld told the soldiers that the armed services are not a drain on U.S. economic strength but that they safeguard it, referring to a constant U.S. debate on how much to spend on the military.
Earlier, in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, Rumsfeld held talks with Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski, whose government is struggling to end a four-month insurgency.
Macedonia's independent Sitel television said Rumsfeld reiterated support for the Skopje government in its struggle against rebels, who say they are fighting for greater rights for the Albanian minority, which accounts for at least one-quarter of the population.