The prospect of an potentially explosive face-off between British Paras and Gurkhas and Russian troops in the streets of Pristina caught Western leaders on the hop.
The Russian move to establish their own "zone" in northern Kosovo caused consternation in Nato, which was caught napping after delaying its expected entry into the province by a day.
Fifty Russian vehicles, including 20 to 30 armoured personnel carriers and 100 troops crossed into Serbia from eastern Bosnia, where they are part of the S-For peace-keeping force, yesterday morning and raced down the Belgrade-Nis highway to Kosovo.
A hardline Russian general said it was Nato's refusal to to allocate Russia its own "sector" of Kosovo for peace-keeping that had made the step necessary. "We will not beg give us this little piece," General Leonid Ivashov said. The general raised the alarming prospect of Russia unilaterally declaring its own zone in Kosovo, which would violate the Kosovo peace deal thrashed out between Nato and the Serbs on the Macedonian border.
While the Russians moved nimbly into Kosovo, British Paras and Gurkhas sat around in the broiling sun beside their helicopters in full battledress awaiting their orders to move. During the day they were moved to a high state of battle readiness and then instructed to stand down.
British and US leaders scrambled to assure public opinion that Western forces and the Kremlin were not about to lock horns over control of Pristina in a parody of the race to Berlin at the end of the Second World War.
The US deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, who was on his way back to the US from his latest mission to Moscow turned his plane around in mid-air and returned to establish Russian intentions.
Vice-President Al Gore admitted to surprise that Russian troops had moved into Yugoslavia, but said Moscow had given an assurance that they would not enter Kosovo unilaterally. "We didn't know they were going to go right there," he stumbled.
President Bill Clinton meanwhile was on his way to the Whitman air force base in Missouri to congratulate the B-52 pilots who flew 15-hour missions direct from the United States to bomb targets in Yugoslavia.
Nato's delay in going in to Kosovo fuelled rumours of a competition between the Western allies over who would cross the border first. There was speculation that Washington insisted on the delay because US forces were not ready to go in, and had to go in ahead of the British.
Last night a mile-long line of trucks carrying British tanks and armoured personnel carriers rumbled up the road from the Macedonian capital, Skopje, towards the border crossing at Blace in preparation for the big shift.
While Serbs in Kosovo were buoyed by the imminent arrival of their Orthodox Slav allies, crowds of Albanian refugees in Macedonia lined the road to Blace to cheer the British troops who they hope will lead them home. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children scrambled over the chicken-wire surrounding the huge Stenkovec refugee camp on to the road, shouting "Nato, Nato".
In an enigmatic comment on the gathering crisis, the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, said: "Russia has always been strong in spirit. Now the situation in the Balkans has shown that Russia is strong not only in spirit, but also in its diplomacy." He added: "Relations with Nato are still frozen. As for the future, we'll see."
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