White House stunned by move

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The Independent Online
THE DRAMATIC and triumphal Russian entry into Pristina in the early hours of this morning "stunned" the White House, where officials initially refused to believe the news until they read reports from US correspondents on the spot. Senior officials went immediately into an emergency meeting chaired by President Clinton who had returned less than an hour before from congratulating US air force pilots in Missouri.

Within the hour, however, the White House was citing no less a figure than the Russian foreign minister as saying that the Russian move was "an unfortunate mistake" and that the troops had orders to withdraw "immediately". Shortly afterwards the Russian foreign ministry issued a statement in those very words. The statement, issued at 4am in Moscow, came hard on the heels of a hastily convened meeting between the US Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, at the Russian foreign ministry.

There was no immediate reaction to the Russian move from the Pentagon, where the spokesman had stated categorically only hours before that the Russians had "agreed not to move in until General Jackson - the British commander of KFOR - agrees to take the Nato troops in". When asked shortly before the Russian coup de theatre about reports that people were thronging the streets of Pristina and waving Russian flags in anticipation of just such an event, a Pentagon desk officer said this was the first such report he had heard. Early today, both Downing Street and Nato headquarters in Brussels refused to comment on events.

The arrival of the Russians, just five hours before the widely awaited Nato entry into Kosovo, crowned a day of high drama spanning Russia, the United States, Nato headquarters in Brussels and Yugoslavia. The drama had begun with the surprise move of Russian troops in convoy out of Bosnia, where they were part of the SFor peace-keeping force, and into Yugoslavia in the direction of Kosovo.

That move, which caught the US and Nato completely by surprise, was accompanied by reassurances from Moscow to Washington that the Russian troops would stop at or before the border with Kosovo, awaiting agreement on the terms of Russia's participation in the Kosovo peace-keeping force or the entry of Nato troops - to be spearheaded by the British Paras - into Kosovo. Vice-President Al Gore told American television viewers of the Russian assurances, as did Madeleine Albright, who spent the day visiting Macedonian refugee camps.

The initial Russian troop movement had been notified to the military command in Bosnia only hours in advance and was seen as a push by Moscow to establish a Russian sector in northern Kosovo after failing to obtain guarantees of a separate command. The Russian contingent, comprising 200 troops in all and 20 to 30 armoured personnel carriers, hardly represented a military threat, but the diplomatic symbolism of its entry into Kosovo was enormous.

As the Russian convoy raced towards Kosovo, a hardline Russian general said it was Nato's refusal 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. As the Russians moved across Serbia, British Paras and Gurkhas were sitting 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, apparently after word from Moscow that the Russians would not enter Kosovo before the first Nato forces.

Nato's delay in going in to Kosovo fuelled rumours of competition between the Western allies over who would cross the border first. But both London and Washington insisted that the delay was not because the US was insisting that American troops form the advance guard.

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 this morning.

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.