Kosovo Peace Deal: Nato faces Russians at Pristina

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The Independent Online
BRITISH CHALLENGER tanks with an escort of air defence missile batteries reached the outskirts of the Kosovo capital of Pristina last night in a hail, thunder and lightning storm of Shakespearean proportions.

Even amid the downpour, a group of Albanian families waved through the murk as the very first British Land Rovers drove down the final stretch of highway into the partially burned city. But last night a standoff appeared to be looming for control of the city's strategic airbase between the Nato advance guard and the 600 Russian troops who beat them to Pristina. They drove through the city before dawn to the airport - supposed to be the headquarters of General Sir Michael Jackson, the commander of KFOR - to the adulation of Pristina's Serbian population.

The British 12th Air Defence Regiment was meant to deploy to the airport but, because the Russians had taken up residence in General Jackson's would-be headquarters, they found themselves parked at a petrol station two miles out of town, under the amused gaze of local Serb paramilitary police.

Nato officers disclosed that their supreme commander, General Wesley Clark, had at one point proposed sending British paratroopers to seize Pristina airport in the early hours of the morning - a deployment that could have ended in violence between Russian and British peacekeepers. But political wisdom prevailed, and 9 Para, which had been tasked to take the airbase, was called off at the last moment.

Yesterday, as another 100 Russian soldiers based in Bosnia moved towards Kosovo in 60 vehicles, talks were going on in three places in an attempt to resolve the Russian role in the peacekeeping force: in Moscow, where the US Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, was meeting the Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov; in Skopje, the Macedonian capital, where Russian and American senior officers were negotiating; and at the airbase itself.

The airport - which doubles as the Yugoslavian military airbase of Slatina - is one of the most sophisticated in Yugoslavia, with underground runways and an impenetrable bunker system for military headquarters. Six MiG-21 jets were successfully sheltered there throughout Nato's bombardment; all flew out to northern Serbia on Friday.

But the arrival of a second Russian general at the air base yesterday - telling the Independent on Sunday that his troops intended to stay there - suggests that the Russian army is keen to use the base as a transport centre for Russian aircraft. A force of up to 15,000 Russian troops is envisaged in Kosovo, though it is quite clear now that they will not come under Nato's command. Nor does it seem that the Russians are in any mood to take orders from General Jackson, who was due to fly to the airport last night after British troops had secured it.

All the same, hours before Nato's arrival in Pristina, smouldering papers outside the headquarters of the notorious Serbian Interior Ministry police marked a frantic attempt to burn any documents that might incriminate them in war or other crimes.

The streets of Pristina, once bustling, were almost deserted yesterday afternoon, save for uniformed men and a few pedestrians, a dusty whirling wind and thunderous sky adding to the ominous atmosphere. "There was shooting in front of our house 15 minutes ago and I'm still shaking," said Elida, an Albanian woman peering nervously from her door.

Military movement was confined for most of the day to the departure of Yugoslavian soldiers, driving civilian cars tagged with numbered sheets to prove they formed part of the authorised withdrawal convoys. The odd truck carrying paramilitaries sailed by, provoking a shudder of fear - at least among non-Serbs.

On the outskirts of the city, towards the Serbian neighbourhood of Kosovo Polje, several buildings were still smouldering, smoke rising to signal revenge for Serbia's loss in Kosovo. A couple of red fire engines labelled "Pristina Airport" sat parked beside the road, far from home - certainly not being used to put out yesterday's blazes.

The sinister quiet around Pristina was broken only by bursts of gunfire in the city centre, perhaps a last frustrated cry before Nato troops make such demonstrations a risky proposition. Further south, with Gurkhas guarding the main road out of Macedonia along a twisting ravine and Paras securing the areas closer to the capital, the main Nato force made slow but steady progress towards the capital after disposing of explosives placed near the route.

The first 15 miles offered an abandoned landscape - the only signs of life a couple of emaciated horses tethered in a parched field and a mule trotting round a sports field - but once the troops reached Urosevac, Albanians came out to celebrate. "It's overwhelming," said Corporal Robert Black, gazing at a growing crowd of men, women and children celebrating wildly by the roadside, screaming "Nato, Nato". "We really didn't plan on stopping, but the Land Rover in front broke down."

The crowd, clapping, chanting and cheering, were feverish in their enthusiasm, the pent-up emotion, the months of terror, pouring forth in almost hysterical form. A man hugged Bombardier Mark Hunter, his uniform garlanded by now, and the crowd mobbed him with hugs. "It's good to see this, the ones that are happy," he said, once he had escaped their clutches. Was it worth the wait? "Yes it was."

A little further along the road, Vidosava Krstic, a Serbian teacher, sat in an overloaded car, planning her (temporary) escape. "We are going to visit our children in Kragujevac [in Serbia proper]," she said, "but we are coming back. We are happy that Nato is coming because they are bringing a peaceful solution." If only all Kosovo's citizens felt the same, Nato's task would be a lot easier.