More U.S. soldiers may go to Kosovo

NATO head requests reinforcements to cool rising tensions

February 24, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Seeking to quell growing unrest in Yugoslavia's war-torn province of Kosovo, NATO's supreme commander, U.S. Gen. Wesley K. Clark, has asked the alliance to provide several thousand more troops. Some of them could be American, defense officials said yesterday.

France has agreed to send one of the three battalions Clark has requested, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and French Defense Minister Alain Richard said yesterday. It is uncertain which countries will provide the remaining troops.

Speaking at a news conference with Richard, Cohen said it was too early to say whether additional U.S. troops would be sent to end the recent skirmishes between Serbian and ethnic Albanian residents in the northern city of Kosovska Mitrovica. The defense secretary said the decision would be based on what military capabilities officials determine are needed -- such as infantry or armored troops.

"We have quite a contribution to date," Cohen said of U.S. troops. "We will see what is required and await that decision."

NATO officials are expected to decide in coming days which types of troops are needed. The reinforcements will total at least 2,000 soldiers. About 5,500 U.S. troops are in Kosovo, in a force of about 44,000 soldiers from NATO and non-NATO countries.

Pentagon sources said that if additional U.S. troops were requested, they could come from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejeune, N.C. That unit is in a three-ship flotilla in the Mediterranean with 2,200 personnel, including 1,150 combat troops.

Cohen said the "robust reinforcement" in allied troops was intended to send a message to President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia -- a suspected instigator of the unrest -- as well as the ethnic Albanian majority of Kosovo that they must abide by the terms of the peace agreement for Kosovo.

"The commanders will make an assessment in terms of exactly how many forces, additional forces are needed beyond the additional French contribution, what the composition will be," Cohen said.

Along with Italian and Polish troops, the 24th Marine unit is part of NATO's reserve troops and is equipped with light armored vehicles, artillery and Cobra attack helicopters.

The current U.S. contingent in Kosovo includes Army troops from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., and the 1st Armored Division, based in Germany.

The explosive situation in Mitrovica -- American U.N. envoy Richard Holbrooke yesterday called it "the most dangerous place in Europe" -- over the past few weeks has prompted NATO's governing body, the North Atlantic Council, to call a special meeting for tomorrow in Brussels, Belgium, to discuss Kosovo, from which Yugoslav forces were driven out last year after a 78-day NATO bombing campaign.

Mitrovica is in the northeastern section of Kosovo that is patrolled by French troops. NATO troops, including U.S. forces, were greeted with rocks and bottles when they arrived there in the past several days.

An estimated 350 U.S. troops have participated in recent house-to-house searches for weapons, including a dawn sweep yesterday. Pentagon officials said the soldiers have returned to their sector to the south, near the city of Urosevac.

British and Canadian troops have also helped the French restore order there.

The large Serbian population of Mitrovica, near the Yugoslav border, makes it ripe for unrest. Richard said France would send one battalion, roughly 700 soldiers, to Mitrovica, which is in the French sector of Kosovo. France already has about 4,500 troops in Kosovo.

"There is going certainly to be a short period of violence that we'll be able to control," Richard said. "There is a component of struggle for power in both sides. And it's the hard-liners, both sides, who are working. This has to do with the struggle for power in Serbia, and this has also to do with the struggle for power over the Albanian community."

In another indication that NATO wants conditions in the divided city to change, peacekeepers announced plans to start moving ethnic Albanians back to their homes in the Serb-controlled part of town next week.

Macedonia has put part of its armed forces stationed near the Kosovo-Yugoslav border on a higher state of readiness, fearing that the violence could spill over, Gjorgji Trendafilov, an army spokesman, said yesterday.

Pentagon officials that Yugoslav troops have been stationed near the border with Macedonia and there have been recent reports of an increase in Yugoslav police in the area.

NATO officials say they believe that Milosevic is helping to instigate the fighting in Mitrovica by sending infiltrators from Yugoslavia into Kosovo and using secret police outside the province.

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