Russians refuse to back off

n British Paras in confrontation at Pristina air base n Yeltsin's general says: 'We're staying'
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The Independent Online
GENERAL Sir Michael Jackson, British commander of Nato's peacekeepers in Kosovo, flew into a strategic air base near Pristina last night, only to find himself in the midst of a standoff with Russian forces who had rushed into Kosovo in the early hours yesterday.

An advance guard of British Paras and Gurkhas which arrived at Slatina air base early in the afternoon found some 200 Russians in control. An armoured column following an hour or two later had its progress blocked near the base by elements of the Yugoslav army and Interior Ministry police. What was supposed to be a triumphal entry by Nato degenerated into a confrontation lasting some three hours. British peacekeepers insisted that the armour had to be allowed on to the base and control ceded to them before Gen Jackson arrived to establish his headquarters there.

Last night a compromise was reported to have been reached, with the British troops taking control of the southern end of the base, while the Russians and Serbs kept the rest. During a press conference by Gen Jackson Russian vehicles sped up and down the runway, scattering journalists at one point. Outside the base Serbian police and military menaced reporters, preventing them getting to the press conference.

Although senior Western figures including President Bill Clinton sought almost frantically to play down yesterday's incidents, confusion and tension over the Russian role in Kosovo looked set to worsen in coming days.

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 - which could have ended in violence between Russian and British peacekeepers. But political wisdom prevailed, and the Paras, who had been tasked to take the air base, 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 air base itself.

The airport - which doubles as the Yugoslavian military air base of Slatina - is one of the most sophisticated in Yugoslavia, with underground taxi- ways 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 Gen Jackson, who was due to fly to the airport last night after British troops had secured it.

In Pristina, hours before Nato's arrival, smouldering papers outside the headquarters of the notorious Serbian Interior Ministry police marked a frantic attempt to burn 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 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, towards the Serbian neighbourhood of Kosovo Polje, buildings were smouldering, signalling revenge for Serbia's loss in Kosovo.