NATO peacekeepers stream into Kosovo
Earlier entry of Russian troops a mistake, Moscow says
June 12, 1999
BLACE, Macedonia (CNN) -- NATO peacekeepers swooped into Kosovo aboard helicopters and trucks at dawn Saturday on a mission to clear land mines for NATO ground troops and to prepare for the safe return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees.
Chinook and Puma helicopters carrying members of Britain's elite Gurkha rifle regiment and paratroopers flew across the border as Operation Joint Guardian, one of the biggest military undertakings in Europe since World War II, got under way.
CNN's Nic Robertson, one of the first journalists to enter Kosovo after Yugoslavia signed an agreement with NATO, reported that as NATO troops entered the province, artillery fire was heard in the Kosovo hills.
The British helicopters, escorted by American tank-killing Apaches, left Macedonia around 5 a.m. on Saturday (1 a.m. EDT) and carried hundreds of Britain's elite Gurkha rifle regiment and paratroopers into Kosovo.
The troops are to land on high ground along the steep Kacanik gorge near the main road between Macedonia and the Kosovar capital Pristina to begin clearing the booby-trapped highway of land mines. Officials are particularly concerned about two bridges and two tunnels along the route, including one tunnel known to be loaded with explosives.
A massive convoy of green British and French military vehicles rolled into Kosovo shortly afterward along with troops on foot -- the first time NATO forces stepped into the province since the 19-member military alliance began its bomb campaign on March 24, which has now been halted.
CNN's Tom Mintier, who also entered Kosovo, said signs of human tragedy were evident, following the massive exodus of Kosovo refugees over the past few months: Hundreds of abandoned cars, pieces of clothing and shoes strewn about.
NATO stunned by Russian troop movement
NATO's entry followed a night of considerable surprise and embarrassment for NATO after Russian troops entered Kosovo ahead of NATO peacekeepers -- a move that stunned the alliance, the White House, Pentagon and even high-level Moscow officials.
At dawn on Saturday, the Russian troops were still in Kosovo, despite reports that they had been ordered out. It was also reported that Russian forces were present at the Pristina Airport, where NATO forces hoped to set up a staging area.
Smiling and waving, Russian soldiers in camouflage fatigues had entered Pristina hours before NATO troops moved in. Russian soldiers perched atop their military vehicles as residents lined the streets cheering, chanting and tossing flowers onto the convoy of trucks and armored personnel carriers, which were marked with the bold letters "KFOR," the symbol for the international peacekeeping force.
At one point, a group of residents climbed onto a vehicle and unfurled a Yugoslav flag, joyfully waving its blue, white and red stripes.
"The situation is sheer madness," CNN's Jim Clancy reported from the Kosovo capital. "This has awakened the entire city."
The residents had begun gathering in the streets hours before the column of about 200 Russian troops reached Pristina -- as if they knew the soldiers were on the way.
Who ordered the Russians in?
Shortly after the troops arrived, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, surprised at the news, called it an "unfortunate mistake" and said the troops had been ordered to leave.
"The reasons for this are being determined. They have been ordered to leave Kosovo immediately and to await further orders," said Ivanov, who just hours earlier assured U.S. officials that Russian troops would wait to enter until NATO peacekeepers arrived in Kosovo.
NATO had no official comment, but a spokesman in Macedonia said: "Of course, it was a surprise."
In Washington, White House officials told CNN the administration is "pleased" with Ivanov's statement but wants more answers as to how it happened.
However, some sources said they did not believe the Russian entry was a mistake -- as one source put it, soldiers don't march without orders.
A senior Pentagon source said the Russian Constitution states that Russia's president or prime minister must act to officially deploy troops outside of Russia.
Russia's Interfax news agency, quoting an unnamed military source, said the Russian entry into Kosovo had been sanctioned by the Kremlin -- but there was no independent confirmation of that report.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott was meeting in Moscow with officials there for further explanations.
State Department spokesman James Rubin, on a plane headed back to Washington, said "we will take (Ivanov's) statement at face value" and "will wait to see" if the troops withdraw.
Russia has said it does not want its troops placed under NATO command in Kosovo. Instead, it wants a Russian sector of the province to oversee.
Many Russians have expressed strong opposition to the Kosovo peace plan, charging that Russia yielded to NATO's demands during peace talks and failed to defend Yugoslavia, its ally.
British transport planes crashes
The NATO-led multinational peacekeeping force is expected to eventually number at least 45,000 on the ground in Kosovo, with another 10,000 backup troops across the borders in Macedonia and Albania. The Russian contingent could include as many as 800 troops ultimately.
But it was not immediately clear if the Russians early entry into Kosovo would affect those plans.
The Pentagon source called the entry of the Russian troops "militarily insignificant" but cautioned the unexpected move could pose political problems.
In another development, a British C-130 military transport plane carrying 12 people crash-landed late Friday in northern Albania and burst into flames after the ammunition it was carrying ignited, seriously injuring one passenger.
The C-130 Hercules touched down on a dirt airstrip near the northern Albanian town of Kukes and taxied down the runway when one of its engines caught fire, a NATO spokesman told CNN.
A massive orange fireball lit up the nighttime sky and repeated explosions jolted the area. A nearby Kosovar Albanian refugee camp was evacuated shortly after the crash.
NATO said it had launched an investigation.
Correspondents Nic Robertson, Tom Mintier, Matthew Chance, Jill Dougherty and Chris Burns contributed to this report.
Russian troops enter Kosovo; Moscow orders them to leave
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