US troops 'cross border' to hunt Albanian rebels

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American ground forces are on the front line against a hostile force in Europe, fighting Albanians who only two years ago welcomed them to Kosovo as saviours. Around 300 American soldiers from the international force in Kosovo (K-For), backed by Apache helicopter gunships, yesterday moved into a village on the Kosovo-Macedonia border occupied by Albanian rebels fighting for independence from Macedonia.

American ground forces are on the front line against a hostile force in Europe, fighting Albanians who only two years ago welcomed them to Kosovo as saviours. Around 300 American soldiers from the international force in Kosovo (K-For), backed by Apache helicopter gunships, yesterday moved into a village on the Kosovo-Macedonia border occupied by Albanian rebels fighting for independence from Macedonia.

Two Western journalists who reached the occupied village of Tanusevci said K-For soldiers had crossed the border into Macedonia, a move that would break K-For's mandate from the United Nations. K-For vehemently denied the reports. One spokeswoman said: "There is more chance of finding Santa Claus than US troops in Macedonia".

The boom of a twin-rotor helicopter filled the remote valley around the village of Korbliq in southern Kosovo, where refugees fleeing the fighting around Tanusevci, claimed K-For first entered Macedonia several days ago.

"They came a few days ago and left quickly," says Fadil Sacipi. "Then they came and searched my house on Tuesday. When their backs were turned, I escaped here with my children." Mr Sacipi is convinced his house lies in Macedonia. K-For insists he is mistaken. The problem revolves around a village called Mijak, just across the hills from Korbliq. It lies in Kosovo, but the road connecting it with rest of Kosovo was heavily mined during the Serbian offensive here under Slobodan Milosevic. Inaccessible, Mijak became deserted. But apparently part of it was accessible from Tanusevci, and became linked to Macedonia. K-For insists its forces have stayed in Mijak. But Western reporters in Tanusevci said they had seen K-For soldiers in a schoolyard with notices in Macedonian.

The sound of the helicopters over Korbliq echoed over the burnt-out shells of houses targeted by Serbs during the Kosovo war. Then, the refugees were fleeing from here to Macedonia. Now they are coming in the other direction. Then, the Americans and Nato were the Albanians' saviours. Now they are fighting in these wild hills against Albanians who deliberately identify themselves with the Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas who fought the Serbs.

Yesterday's headline in Koha Ditore, Kosovo's leading newspaper, read, "Albanians point the gun at Americans". It is an extraordinary role reversal.

In the valley around Korbliq, villagers on horseback stopped to stare. High above, an armoured troop carrier swung from wires under the helicopter. The soldiers came and went all day on Wednesday, ferrying troop carriers to the front line. The Americans were equipping themselves for a heavy offensive.

That came at sunrise yesterday, but only after heavy fighting between Macedonian troops and the rebels in the village. Reporters in the village said all rebels had fled by the time the Americans arrived.

These are the same American soldiers who are forced to walk the streets of Pristina in full battledress with flak jackets and helmets, so fearful is Washington about the effect the death of an American in Kosovo might have on public opinion in the US, with a Congress eager to reduce US military commitments abroad.

Until now, the American contingent of K-For has avoided dangerous situations, leaving them to the Europeans. Nato announced yesterday it will allow Yugoslav troops into a small part of a buffer zone created after the end of the Kosovo air campaign. The so-called ground safety zone was supposed to protect Kosovo, but in the topsy-turvy world of the Balkans, it has become a safe haven from which Albanian guerrillas launch operations against Macedonia and the Presevo valley area of Serbia.

Kosovo has become a base for Albanian extremists who want to add parts of Serbia and Macedonia to the province, and form an independent "Greater Kosovo". Military sources estimate the number of rebels at no more than 200.

The Yugoslav President, Vojislav Kostunica, yesterday welcomed the Nato plan. But he charged that the mission of K-For in the province had produced "disastrous" results.

Yesterday's moves were signs the Western alliance has finally accepted the situation is out of control and lines have been drawn around the extent of Albanian aspirations it is prepared to accept.

â¿¢ Bulgaria yesterday sent a military supplies convoy under tight security to neighbouring Macedonia to help it halt the Albanian incursions from Kosovo. The Defence Minister Boiko Noev said the aid included "hundreds of tons of munitions and other military hardware".

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