NATO rolls into Pristina

British troops divide airport with early Russian contingent

Serbs flee their villages

Other alliance forces on the move in Kosovo

mines delay French

June 13, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- Thousands of NATO troops completed the first day of their deployment into Kosovo yesterday, beginning an arduous peacekeeping mission designed to heal a breech among war-ravaged people and return up to 850,000 ethnic Albanian refugees to this eerily empty land.

Yet even as the first British soldiers arrived under cover of U.S. Apache attack helicopters, potential strains were evident in weaving together an international peacekeeping force.

The British were beaten to Pristina airport by Russian soldiers who executed an unexpected early morning maneuver and drove to the provincial capital to stake their claim as an important component in the Kosovo force mission, known as KFOR.

The British were prepared to share the airport with the Russians, but Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Jackson will command KFOR and base his operation at the facility.

As negotiations went on here and between Moscow and Washington over precisely what role the Russians would play, Jackson said he was "not in the slightest" embarrassed by the Russians' presence in Pristina.

But the Russians are not leaving.

By the end of the day, a tentative deal appeared to have been worked out that left the British troops in control of the southern sector of the airport with the Russians in control of the rest.

The nightmare of a new round of ethnic displacement also came closer to reality as thousands of Serbian civilians packed their belongings and left their villages, fearing what the future might bring if the ethnic Albanian force, the Kosovo Liberation Army, is not disarmed.

Despite the potential woes, KFOR pulled off a show of strength on a day when roads were cluttered with convoys of tanks and cars, as rolling thunder and leaden skies gave way to a lashing hailstorm.

Led by the Household Cavalry Regiment and Royal Gurkha Rifles, whose enlisted men are from Nepal, the British rolled from Macedonia to Pristina in an armored column that halted traffic and effectively liberated Kosovo from the rule of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

On their way into the Serbian province, the troops disarmed KLA guerrillas and Serbian Interior Ministry police, practicing equal-opportunity gun control.

In a town called Holas, young ethnic Albanians greeted the convoys with chants of "NATO! NATO!" and "Clinton! Clinton!"

They also cheered for the KLA, using its Albanian initials and shouting "UCK! UCK!"

Some of the British didn't mind being second into Pristina behind the Russians, who received a tumultuous welcome early yesterday from as many as 1,000 Serbs who thronged the street.

"Not a worry," said British Cpl. Chet Gurung.

"Peace already dawned."

Convoy moves cautiously

The NATO march through the rugged mountain passes from the Macedonian border toward Pristina proceeded slowly, but the tempo accelerated once reaching flat ground.

The convoy moved cautiously for fear of mines or Serbian snipers, but there were no incidents.

French tanks, however, were stopped by a minefield along the Yugoslav-Macedonian border.

A French mine-clearing team was dispatched to the area, while 1,200 French infantry were preparing to leap-frog over the minefield to fan out into the province.

Some Americans and about 200 Germans crossed the border, too, and the Italians were to enter Kosovo later yesterday.

U.S. Marines coming

A larger contingent of the expected 8,500 Germans was to march into Kosovo from Albania today, and U.S. Marines were to move in as early as today.

The Americans who crossed into Kosovo included liaison and demining personnel.

There were no specific figures, although the Pentagon said it was fewer than 100 people.

At least 100 additional Russian soldiers were preparing yesterday in Bosnia to depart for Kosovo, said a NATO spokesman in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The convoy was being assembled at Bijeljina in the Bosnian Serb republic, but it was unclear when the 60-vehicle column would depart.

"We've been informed by their commander that he would be sending a resupply convoy in support of the troops deployed yesterday," Maj. David Scanlon said.

"We believe they are part of the resupply convoy."

NATO's peacekeeping role was among the key points of the dispute that led to the air campaign that began March 24 to resolve the Kosovo conflict.

Milosevic's regime vowed never to let a foreign soldier into the province of Kosovo, the heartland of ancient Serbia, with its monasteries, churches and a historic battlefield.

But in the end, under the weight of bombing and the cover of United Nations Security Council resolutions, Milosevic capitulated to the West and agreed to allow 48,000 NATO-led troops into Kosovo, including 7,000 U.S. soldiers.

The mission's first task is to secure the province and ensure that a vacuum does not develop as all Serbian military, paramilitary and police units leave.

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