'Organised and coherent'

"I'm not saying we're there yet, because we're not yet there. More has to be done. But I think we are on the right track."

Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, said on his way to the meeting that any reduction in the Nato presence from predominantly ethnic-Albanian Kosovo should not leave existing troops exposed.

He said: "My concern is that we do this in an organised and coherent fashion as an alliance, and not countries leaving unilaterally."

Asked whether any troop withdrawals in Kosovo would free up soldiers for the alliance's battle against Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, Gates said: "I would certainly hope so [but] I'm not going to bet the ranch on it."

The alliance, which has been stretched by its military commitments and by the global economic crisis hitting defence budgets, had been looking to wind down its presence in Kosovo for some time.

Tension and violence

De Hoop Scheffer said the alliance had yet to fix a firm date for the reduction to 10,000 soldiers but said "it might well be January 1 [2010]."

Nato officials said the longer-term aim was to reduce the force, known as Kfor and which currently has a strength of 13,800, to around 2,200 over two years, provided security allowed.

At its height the force numbered 55,000 and was initially deployed a decade ago after Nato's bombing campaign to drive out Serb forces.

There had been widespread fears that Kosovo's move towards independence in January 2008 could increase tensions and fuel violence between its ethnic-Albanian majority and Serb minority, or reignite dormant tensions in the wider Balkans.

Kosovo's independence is recognised by 60 countries including the US and most European Union members.

Serbia and Russia, a permanent UN Security Council member with veto rights, have said they will not recognise an independent Kosovo.