WAR IN THE BALKANS: 14,000 troops wait until coast is clear

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The Independent Online
IN A frozen little tableau a group of young soldiers stand on a ridge in northern Macedonia gazing at the mountains behind which their theoretical enemy is hard at work.

More than half a century ago their grandfathers stood surveying this same landscape and later died in their thousands. Today, these young solders of the new German army wonder if they will die a different death. Of boredom.

History, it is said, tends to repeat itself. But sometimes it likes to change the script a little, to introduce a few black jokes and an element of grim paradox.

It was in these parts, after the German invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941, that seven elite Panzer divisions of the Wehrmacht were pinned down for months and finally forced to retreat - due to the heroism of a few thousand men, largely Serbian, who fought with great skill and honour.

Today the grandsons of those former heroes are fighting a different kind of war in the former Yugoslav province of Kosovo, one in which they burn people out of their homes, shoot children and abuse young women. But it seems that no matter how many are dying just a few miles up the road, the good guys will not gallop to the rescue and will never have to face the bad guys. The biggest international force assembled by Nato in 50 years, some 14,000 men with tanks and artillery and attack helicopters, will be remembered as the army that said it would wait until the enemy went home before moving forward.

It is not their fault, of course. After weeks listening to the young soldiers from four nations, and watching them work wonders to build tent cities for thousands of refugees in a matter of hours, it is clear they are angry at what they are seeing. They are anything but gung-ho, but they are prepared to fight. And they think they could win. But the politicians who control them, in an announcement that is now seen as the worst blunder in a continuing series of blunders, made the decision to throw the towel into the ring before the bell even sounded.

And yesterday, in a curious little sideshow to the Kosovo shooting war, Nato rolled out a few of its bits and pieces - a couple of tanks and a couple of helicopters - on a plain near Skopje. The tanks roared over the grass and the helicopters did tricky little aerial ballet dances in the sky, and a few solders looked impressive with their machine-guns and side arms.

There was an upbeat atmosphere among the officers, the talk was all about how highly trained and skilled they were. Even Kate Adie showed up and was surrounded in an instant by a flurry of brass, all anxious to brief her on strategy and hear her views on what should be done. And, as each little demonstration was completed, the bored media felt we were being rude by not giving a polite round of applause.

It was all rather pointless and a little sad. Everybody was aware of the irony of the situation. All around us, in a great arc running for 50 miles around the Kosovo border, lay the powerful armoured units of the greatest defence force in the world, hidden and waiting in the deep valleys and forests, which have been rendered powerless to defend anything.

After an hour or so the television crews and reporters began to skulk away while the tanks still roared, the helicopters danced and thunderflashes went off.

Fifteen miles away there had been reports of trouble at the big Stankovic One refugee camp. About 3,000 Albanians, hemmed in for weeks among rotting rubbish, with no hope of going home, had rioted after their Macedonian "host" policemen beat two men trying to climb the wire.

They were finally calmed down, with injury or violence, with the promise that the authorities would consider their demand.

The demand was that Nato, which built the camp and ran it efficiently in the first few days of exodus, should come back and take care of them.

It seems that Nato is fine for building tents and providing field kitchens. But as for fighting for them? Not a chance.