Russians suddenly in Pristina

Armored column's advance stuns NATO after assurances

A mistake, Moscow says

British, French troops enter from Macedonia to start peacekeeping

June 12, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- Russian troops entered this ravaged provincial capital early this morning, defying Washington, the NATO alliance and apparently their own government, but drawing crowds of cheering Serbs who greeted them with flowers and gunshots fired into the air.

About an hour after the quarter-mile-long column of Russian soldiers and vehicles passed through the city, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said that the Russian troop movement was a mistake and that the troops would be ordered out of Kosovo.

"Unfortunately this did take place," Ivanov told the Cable News Network. "The reasons for this are being determined. They have been ordered to leave Kosovo immediately to await further orders."

Just hours after the Russian column entered Pristina, NATO Chinook helicopters carrying British paratroopers flew across the Macedonia border into Kosovo, marking the start of the alliance's peacekeeping move into the Yugoslav province, according to wire reports.

A huge convoy of British and French military vehicles rolled across the border as U.S. Apache helicopters patrolled overhead.

A column of jeeps packed with Britain's elite Gurkha rifle troops began crossing into Kosovo at the Blace frontier post, and other units advanced on foot as NATO undertook the biggest ground operation in its 50-year history.

The plans to enter Kosovo early today never seemed to be in jeopardy, despite the earlier arrival of Russian troops in Pristina.

"The Russians assured us that they did not intend to deploy in Kosovo before" NATO peacekeepers, said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.

But the movement of the Russians into Kosovo from Serbia, where they entered yesterday, appeared not to be a surprise to the Serbian government and to the Serbian population of Pristina. Sources here said that Serbian national television had broadcast an alert to the people of Pristina to be in the main streets of the city to greet the Russian troops.

In the crowd, one woman reflected the relief that Serbs felt because of the arrival of their fellow Slavs from Russia, instead of the NATO force which was supposed to begin arriving first later this morning.

"They are our friends," said the woman who did not give her name. "They are our brothers. They didn't bomb us. They should have come earlier."

The Russian column included 14 armored personnel carriers, 14 trucks carrying smiling, waving soldiers and several jeeps. People in the crowd, many of them children, jumped onto the Russian vehicles and waved Russian and Serbian flags.

Moving out of Pristina, the Russian convoy came to a stop at Kosovo Polje, the town named for the 14th-century battle in which the Serbs were defeated by the Ottoman Turks. It is the event that Serbs refer to in their vows never to be dominated again by foreigners.

Finally the Russians moved to Pristina airport, about 2 1/2 miles from the provincial capital.

The Russian news agency Itar-Tass said the decision for Russian troops to advance was made by the Russian Defense Ministry and the Yugoslav military.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott went into immediate pre-dawn talks with officials in Moscow.

Russia has been widely expected to take part in the peacekeeping force but Talbott was unable yesterday to resolve differences with Moscow over who would command the Russians and where they would be based.

Ivanov said Russian and U.S. military officials will meet in Macedonia to discuss joint participation in the international force.

When news spread yesterday that Russian troops might enter Pristina, hundreds of people appeared on the streets. Some carried bottles of wine, while others brought rose petals. A few American flags were burned as the crowd waited.

Exhausted and uncertain after 2 1/2 months of war, the people who remained in Pristina were poised on a knife edge.

"I am very frightened to stay," said Stojanka Mitrovic, a 46-year-old woman who was trudging along streets that were virtually deserted. "But mostly, I'm afraid for the children."

War and "ethnic cleansing" have taken an even worse toll on a city that was far from a beauty spot in the best of times.

Yet to remember Pristina before the war, and to see it now, is to bear witness to a city that has devoured itself. Up to 250,000 people once lived here. Now, there are maybe 100,000, about 60 percent ethnic Albanian.

NATO bombs have wrecked municipal buildings, smashed army barracks and pockmarked the airport runway. But the bombs can't explain the ethnic Albanian neighborhoods that lie empty. They can't provide an answer to why acres of shops and restaurants are scorched. And they don't begin to explain the terror that lurks, not just here, but in other parts of this province.

"I'm not afraid, because I'm old," said 63-year-old Milenko Savovic. "They can kill me if it is any use. I was born here and I expect that I will die here."

"It was very hard," Savovic said of the war. "But we survived."

Kosovo is a ruin, and people are fleeing.

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