NATO gains ground as Serb convoys roll out of Kosovo
June 14, 1999
PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (CNN) -- As truckloads of Yugoslav forces and Serb civilians clogged roads in a massive retreat from Kosovo, NATO troops and aid convoys surged deeper into the Serbian province Monday to the raucous welcome of ethnic Albanians venturing out into the cities for the first time in months.
Though NATO commanders say the peacekeeping mission is going according to plan, the operation has been hindered by sporadic deadly violence and a tense impasse with Russian troops occupying the airport in Pristina.
A flood of about 25,000 displaced Kosovars came down from the hills to the small village of Glogovac on Monday to greet a U.N. relief convoy bearing wheat, flour, blankets and bottled water.
Serb paramilitary forces had not withdrawn from the area but did not interfere with the aid delivery, though U.N. workers said some Serbs fired into the air as they left.
In the southern Kosovo town of Kacanik, British soldiers discovered what they believed were mass graves. U.S. soldiers have since taken over guarding the site, awaiting the arrival of forensics experts.
About 100 mounds were counted in the grassy field between Pristina and Skopje, Macedonia.
Local residents said a massacre occurred some distance from the area in early April. Serb military police moved the bodies and buried them in the graves, they said. According to Kosovo Liberation Army rebels, the victims included men, older people and some children.
Meanwhile, British Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson, commander of the peacekeeping force KFOR, emerged from discussions with Russian Gen. Viktor Zavarzin at the Pristina airport, where a small Russian force has taken up position.
"These Russian troops are part of the KFOR operation, and I look forward in due course to assimilating the Russian contingent within the force as a whole," he told reporters.
"We are now discussing with the Russian side the details of their future deployment," he said.
An estimated 200 Russian troops surprised NATO by unexpectedly moving into Pristina ahead of alliance troops early Saturday.
Moscow has insisted its troops guard its own area outside of NATO control. Washington has remained adamant that all troops report to alliance command. Russia is not a NATO member.
U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin spoke by phone Sunday to discuss the role of the Russians. They resumed talks on Monday and decided that their defense ministers would meet soon to discuss the Kosovo situation.
In Washington, U.S. officials suggested Sunday that the Russians could have a "zone of responsibility" within one of the five main sectors and report to a non-NATO general who in turn answers to the alliance.
In Moscow, officials from the Russian military and foreign ministry were to meet with Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Russian Kosovo envoy.
NATO leaders downplayed the situation, saying they did not need the airport for immediate military operations and that a temporary KFOR headquarters had been established south of the city.
A Russian general said paratroopers and infantry soldiers were ready to go to Kosovo. However, Russian commanders said that decision had not been made and no air corridor in which to move its peacekeepers had been secured.
Some Eastern bloc nations, including Hungary, have denied air clearance to the Russian military flights, which Moscow said violated international law.
In Bosnia, the Pentagon said, some 30 Russian troops along with about 15 vehicles had assembled for a resupply mission to Kosovo. Russian officers said they would take food, fuel, water and communications equipment to their fellow soldiers in Pristina.
A senior KLA guerrilla, Hashim Thaci, said Monday that the Russians were unwelcome in Kosovo and demanded they leave. He warned that the KLA "will not guarantee their safety."
"Their uninvited entrance may stir more conflict in Kosova that we do not want to happen," Thaci said in an interview distributed by the rebels' Kosova Press agency.
Yugoslavia's private news agency Beta reported Monday that three Serbs were killed by men wearing KLA armbands in a suburb of Pristina. The Serb-run Media Center said it had a report of five people killed in the same suburb but did not have details.
The Media Center also reported that KLA soldiers shot and killed a Serb employee of Pristina's television station Monday night in front of his home. The Serb report gave no other details of the attack.
On Sunday, two German journalists and two Serbs died in isolated shootings.
A spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry said the reporters were fatally shot by snipers near Dulje, south of Pristina.
A NATO official told CNN that a Serbian police reservist was killed in Pristina after he opened fire on a British member of the peacekeeping force.
Farther south, in Prizren, German NATO troops shot and killed the driver and wounded the passenger of a car that opened fire on them in the town square.
In Pristina, a Serb civilian was shot Monday morning as he tried to drive away from the area. He was receiving treatment at a local hospital, said Lt. Col. Nick Clissit of the Irish Guards.
NATO: Yugoslav withdrawal going well
Overall, Yugoslavia is withdrawing its forces from Kosovo smoothly, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said.
As of Monday, about 25 percent of the Serb forces had departed, Shea said, adding that 15 percent of the tanks, one-third of the armored personnel carriers and 10 percent of the artillery had left as well.
"They seem to be wanting to cover their withdrawal from the rear, but in the main it's going ahead smoothly and fairly," he said.
Ethnic Albanians near the Macedonian border warmly greeted U.S. soldiers as they moved into southern Kosovo. Departing Serbs offered verbal harassment and obscene gestures.
The U.S. forces, hauling howitzer artillery pieces, experienced few problems. But they said one Serb tried to pull a gun. He was subdued by his own soldiers before there was any gunfire.
Around the town of Prizren, Serb military forces continued to withdraw, often under escort from German NATO troops.
Also, amid the taunts of ethnic Albanians, thousands of Serb civilians began leaving. Many Serbs said they did not believe NATO could protect them from the KLA, the rebel force seeking independence for Kosovo.
Kosovo Albanians celebrated in the town, chanting, clapping and hoisting an Albanian flag on a pole. An old fire truck sprayed the crowd with water, a welcome relief from the heat.
The peacekeepers began deploying in Kosovo on Saturday after the Serb-dominated Yugoslav federation agreed to withdraw its military presence from the province to end more than two months of NATO airstrikes.
All Yugoslav forces must withdraw from Kosovo by June 20.
Shootings raise tensions in Kosovo
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