Diplomats focus on standoff

Albright, Cohen to meet with Russians over airport troops

'This is a huge deal'

As NATO moves in and Serbs leave, KLA makes show of force

Peace In Yugoslavia

June 15, 1999|By Mark Matthews and Jonathan Weisman | Mark Matthews and Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen will meet with top Russian officials in Helsinki, Finland, this week to try to end an embarrassing standoff between NATO and Russian troops at the Pristina airport in Kosovo.

Four days after 200 Russian troops stunned the West by moving into Kosovo without an agreement with NATO, their presence in what was supposed to be the alliance headquarters in Pristina continued to preoccupy the highest levels of government in Washington and Moscow.

In Kosovo, NATO-led peacekeeping troops were moving in and Yugoslavian troops and some worried Serbian civilians were moving out.

A convoy of 1,200 U.S. Marines crossed in just south of Kacanik, the location of one of the peacekeepers' first grim discoveries, a possible mass grave site containing, villagers said, more than 90 bodies.

In another show of force not provided for in the peace agreement, the Kosovo Liberation Army, which was supposed to demilitarize, instead opened an office in Pristina, the Kosovo capital.

In Prizren, German soldiers disarmed several KLA members when they tried to seize wounded Serbian soldiers at the main hospital.

Prizren was a hotbed of tension. Terrified Serbs carried their belongings to bus stops and left town as crowds of hostile ethnic Albanians gathered nearby.

President Clinton spoke by telephone with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin for the second time in two days yesterday, a day after Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott returned from Moscow without an agreement on what role Russia will play in the Kosovo peacekeeping force.

Administration officials hope Albright and Cohen will be able to work out a deal at their meeting in Helsinki with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Defense Minister Marshal Igor Sergeyev.

But they said a final solution to Russia's peacekeeping role might not come until the two presidents meet face to face Sunday at the Group of Eight summit in Cologne, Germany.

The Russians are demanding that they be able to control part of Kosovo and not have to report directly through the NATO commanders.

U.S. officials have rejected this, fearing it could lead to a Serb enclave in a partitioned Kosovo, but they are working on a compromise that would allow Russian troops to have an area of responsibility within one of the sectors of Kosovo controlled by a NATO country.

Instead of being directly under NATO, they could report to a commander who falls outside the direct NATO chain of command and who might be from a neutral country, such as Finland or Sweden.

"This would give them enough political room to say, `We're not reporting to NATO,' " a State Department official said.

"I think we are making progress," National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger said.

If strides were made toward resolving the problem, they failed to erase completely what one official called "Cold War flashbacks" and a chill that fell over the peacekeeping operation Friday night.

Even the choice of a neutral meeting ground -- Helsinki -- carried a reminder of U.S.-Soviet meetings.

The Russian troops have no more than a token presence in Kosovo, where the number of NATO troops taking up peacekeeping functions stood yesterday at 14,000 and was climbing by the hour.

But because of Moscow's strong opposition to NATO's air war and historic ties to the Serbs, its defiant stand at the airport represents at least a symbolic resistance to NATO's occupation of the province.

More worrisome, the Russian troops' entry revealed disarray and confusion within the Russian government and raised questions about whether the military was under civilian control.

NATO's commander in Kosovo, Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Jackson, played down the problems caused by the Russians yesterday, saying the airport turns out not to have been a desirable site for a headquarters after all.

"I'm not in a turf war with them. They are on the airfield. They regard it as important. It is not important to me at this stage," he said at a news conference.

"Frankly, now that I've seen the ground, it's too far out of town. I'm a little concerned about unexploded ordnance." Jackson has set up a temporary headquarters elsewhere in Pristina.

In Washington, officials took pains to play down the crisis with Russia, arguing that it should not detract from the strides made so far by NATO forces in stabilizing the province.

"I am confident that the U.S.-Russia relationship is one that is based on real national interests for both our countries and, therefore, we'll deal with the issues one by one, and that there has not been long-term damage from this," Albright said yesterday.

By de-emphasizing the tension, officials were trying to avoid inflaming anti-Western sentiment in Moscow, particularly in the Duma, the Russian parliament.

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