Fury as Nato halts Russian Kosovo force

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The Independent Online
TALKS WILL take place in Moscow today between Nato and Russian officials after the United States forced Moscow to postpone a deployment of peace-keepers to Kosovo. They were due to fly to the former war zone yesterday.

Indignant Russian military officials accused the US of "provocation" after Washington successfully blocked the departure of two Ilyushin-76 military cargo planes until Nato had clarified "technical" details of their mission.

Acting at Nato's request, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania refused permission for the Russian aircraft to cross their airspace en route to Kosovo. Russian officials said they were "stunned" by the move, and complained that it came without adequate explanation.

At the heart of the issue is the peace-keeping agreement struck between the Russia and the US a fortnight ago in Helsinki after Russian paratroops dashed into Kosovo and seized control of Pristina airport ahead of allied troops.

Since then, Nato has been complaining behind the scenes that the Russians are trying to revise the deal, which appears to have been perilously vague in certain areas. Alliance sources say Moscow is now demanding to be allowed to send troops into other sectors in Kosovo, apart from the agreed French, German and US areas.

Uncertainty and disagreement has also flared over the issue of who is in command of the Russian troops, who will eventually number 3,600. It seems the Russians are continuing to balk at placing their soldiers under Nato command, and appear set on answering to orders from only Moscow.

Unnamed Russian military officials made clear their annoyance over yesterday's delay in remarks to the news agency Interfax. One said it had been "unexpected" because details of the deployment of peacekeepers were established during three days of intense negotiations between the US and Russia in Helsinki a fortnight ago, and then confirmed in talks in Brussels last week.

The Russian Defence Ministry told Reuters that the two planes - carrying 100 troops - would "in all likelihood" depart today. This contradicted a Nato official in Brussels who said that there would be negotiations this week in which details would be hammered out. "Until then it is better that Russian troops are not reinforced."

Although efforts have been made to rebuild relations since the Kosovo conflict - with warm words from both sides and mutual backslapping at the recent G8 summit - resentment continues to simmer, particularly within the military.

Nato commanders are unlikely to forgive Russia quickly for the Pristina airport escapade - Russia's attempt to serve notice that it expects a meaningful role in Kosovo and overall European security.

However, despite yesterday's delayed flights, and amid rising ill-feeling, Russia is sending other peace-keepers by land and sea. A train carrying 144 servicemen left the city of Tula on Friday bound for the Black Sea port of Tuapse. Interfax said another group, from the Northern Caucasus military district, will cross the Black Sea on four ships on Saturday.

n A top Serb opposition leader was due to return to Belgrade yesterday, despite a military court investigation into allegations that he dodged the draft, his party announced.

In a crackdown against opponents, President Slobodan Milosevic's government ordered criminal proceedings against Zoran Djindjic for alleged draft evasion during Nato's campaign. Mr Djindjic's lawyers maintain he never received the draft call.