Liberation Of Kosovo: Russians bar Nato forces from airport

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The Independent Online
THE COMMANDER of Nato forces in Kosovo yesterday conceded that the Russians havecontrol of the vital supply point to Pristina airport. General Sir Michael Jackson also admitted that the Russians were a force outside his command and that he expected their troop strength to grow.

As the impasse between Nato and its "ally" over the airport continued for the third day yesterday, despite intense negotiations, General Jackson insisted he did not want the airport anyway and the Russian paratroopers were welcome to it. He told a press conference in Pristina: "I am not in a turf war, they [the Russians] regard the airport as important, it's not important to me ... I am very happy to leave the airport in Russian hands - if you think that's a feeble excuse, you are absolutely wrong."

Visibly irritated by questioning about the airport, General Jackson said he had considered using it as his headquarters, but now felt "it is too far out of town". He added that he was "a little concerned about minefields and unexploded ordnance".

The press conference itself had been held at the second attempt. A celebratory one was planned for Saturday evening at the airport following the entry of Nato into Kosovo from Macedonia, but that ended in disarray after the Russians objected to the venue and General Jackson was forced to talk in the pouring rain, with much of what he had to say drowned out by Russian manoeuvres.

A Russian general has declared himself to be in charge at the airport and his forces now effectively control what flies in. They have also set up road-blocks which have barred Nato military vehicles, while allowing in Serbian tanks.

Despite General Jackson's pronouncements, defence sources say the inability to use the airport is a major handicap. Apart from the basic military principle of securing the main airfield in any operation of this type, Nato's plan had been to fly reinforcements and supplies directly into Pristina airport and so avoid the tortuous overland route that passes throughGreece and Macedonia.

After their hour-long telephone call on Sunday, Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton spoke again yesterday.Convinced that it is not being rewarded for its role in achieving the peace accord, Russia is demanding its own sector inKosovo. Nato has refused, and insists on being in command of peace-keeping forces.

Moscow is not wholly delighted by the way the airport crisis has developed. Russia's military top brass yesterday accused their own diplomats of failing to negotiate an air corridor to supply Russian paratroopers holding the airbase near Pristina. Senior Defence Ministry officials complained that their troops were isolated because Russia had been denied access to air corridors by Hungary and Bulgaria.

While senior Russian officials have promised Nato that it will send no more soldiers into Kosovo without prior agreement, the head of Russia's airborne troops, General Georgy Shpak, said more paratroopers were ready to go.

Nato yesterday continued to try to play the issue down, by arguing that Russia - meaning, the badly undermined Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov - accepted that its paratroopers would eventually be integrated into the international peace-keepers. But it is unlikely that this had the approval of the Defence Ministry, which has close ties with the Yugoslav military leadership. Russian news reports have suggested that Moscow's generals dispatched the paratroopers after consulting with the Yugoslav leadership.

For all Nato's soft-pedalling,the deadlock seems to have shifted little. The Russian Prime Minister, Sergei Stepashin, yesterday reiterated Moscow's desire for a "substantial" peace-keeping role, under the auspices of the United Nations.

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