Russians stake claim on Kosovo

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The Independent Online
NATO PLANS for an orderly takeover in the Balkans today were thrown into confusion yesterday when a contingent of Russian forces unexpectedly raced across the Bosnian border into Serbia, heading for Kosovo

Early this morning, British-led Nato troops were massing at Blace on the border with Macedonia ready to enter Kosovo at first light, led by Paratroops and Gurkhas. The intentions of the Russians in Serbia, poised 30 miles from the northern border of Kosovo, remained unclear although it is possible a diplomatic solution will allow them to enter at the same time as Nato troops, but not under their command.

Although Washington said it had assurances the Russians would not cross into Kosovo until Nato troops were ordered in by General Sir Michael Jackson, reports from the Kosovan capital Pristina last night spoke of people lining the streets waiting to greet the Russians, their hopes fuelled by Yugoslav news agency reports.

The Russian troop movement, which was notified to the military command in Bosnia only hours in advance, was seen as a push by Moscow to establish a Russian sector in northern Kosovo after failing to obtain guarantees of a separate command. It caused consternation in Nato, which was caught napping after delaying its expected entry into the province by a day and threatened a potentially explosive face-off between Russian and British troops in Pristina.

The Russian contingent, comprising 200 troops and 20 to 30 armoured personnel carriers, crossed into Serbia from eastern Bosnia, where they are part of the S-For peace-keeping force.

A Russian general said Nato's refusal to give Russia its own "sector" of Kosovo for peace-keeping had made the step necessary. "We will not beg, `Give us this little piece'," General Leonid Ivashov said. He raised the alarming prospect of Russia unilaterally declaring its own zone in Kosovo, which would violate the Kosovo peace deal.

As the Russians moved across Serbia, British Paras and Gurkhas sat around in the broiling sun beside their helicopters in full battledress awaiting their orders to move. At one point, when the destination of the Russians was not known, they were placed on high alert, only to be stood down after word from Moscow that the Russians would not enter Kosovo first.

British and US leaders hurried to assure the public 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 Washington from his latest mission to Moscow, ordered his plane be turned round in mid-air and spent the rest of the day trying to establish Russian intentions and hammer out an agreement on Russian participation in the peace-keeping force.

President Bill Clinton, meanwhile, went to the Whiteman air force base in Missouri where he gave an ebullient address to the troops, congratulating the B-2 pilots who flew 15-hour missions direct from the United States to bomb targets in Yugoslavia.

Nato's delay in going into Kosovo fuelled rumours of competition between the Western allies over who would cross the border first. But both London and Washington said the delay was not caused by US insistence that its troops form the advance guard.

Last night, a British C-130 Hercules transport plane, said to be carrying British and US special forces, crashed 50 yards from one of the busiest refugee camps at Kukes when it failed to take off from a makeshift airstrip in darkness. One person was seriously injured and a further 11 suffered minor injuries.

Further reports, pages 2-3;

Leading article, Fergal Keane, Review, page 3;

Monitor, Review page 6