A contingent of Russian troops landed at Kosovo's Pristina airport over the weekend as part of an advance unit for a force that is eventually to include some 3,600 soldiers. Their arrival came as no surprise to NATO -- in sharp contrast to the arrival of some 200 Russian paratroopers at the airport earlier in the month. The earlier move set off difficult talks over the role that Russian troops are to play in peacekeeping operations in Kosovo. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is in Kosovo and reports on the current situation confronting Russian soldiers in the province.
Pristina, 28 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Since their arrival at Pristina airport two days ago, a small team of Russian soldiers has been traveling around Kosovo to inspect the sectors where Russians are to serve as part of the KFOR peacekeeping force.
NATO spokesman Major Jan Joosten told our correspondent in Pristina that precise deployment sites for about 3,600 Russians due to arrive in Kosovo in the coming weeks have not yet been agreed upon. But he said KFOR and Russian army officers will meet in Brussels today with General Wesley Clark, NATO's supreme commander of allied forces in Europe, to finalize those locations.
Under a general agreement reached with the United States in Helsinki ten days ago, two battalions of Russian peacekeepers are to be deployed in the U.S. sector of southeastern Kosovo. Another two battalions will be stationed within the French sector in the north and one battalion will go to the southwest where German soldiers are deployed. Rather than serving directly under NATO, Russian troops will remain under a Russian command that is integrated into what NATO is now calling a "multinational division."
Western powers have refused to grant Russia its own sector in Kosovo, saying that such a move might lead to a de facto partition of the province because of Moscow's pro-Serb sympathies.
Russia is distrusted by much of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian population. That has raised questions about whether it is appropriate to station a large number of Russian troops in areas that are strongholds of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), such as the town of Malisevo in the central part of the province.
The deployment of Russians in the tense city of Mitrovica is another question still being negotiated by Russian and NATO military leaders. Armed Serbs last week set up a blockade on a bridge across the Ibri River, effectively preventing ethnic Albanians from traveling to the northern part of the city where the main hospital is located.
Crowds of angry ethnic Albanians have been gathering daily in southern Mitrovica to protest the blockade. French peacekeepers are trying to defuse the situation by providing escorts for both Serbs and ethnic Albanians to the opposite sides of the city.
General Clark has called the armed Serbs "paramilitaries" and threatened that "appropriate action" will be taken by French peacekeepers unless they surrender their weapons. He also insists that Mitrovica will not be partitioned in a way similar to East and West Berlin during the Cold War. But it appears likely that Russian troops will soon be deployed in Serbian neighborhoods on the north side of Mitrovica. NATO's Major Joosten told RFE/RL that such a move would be logical:
"Of course you can expect that the Russians will be deployed in areas where the majority are Serbs. For example, Turks will be deployed in an area where there is a Turkish minority and that makes sense. The people understand each other and that's the best way of trying to create a secure and safe environment."
Until the bulk of the Russian forces arrive in Kosovo, Russia's role will remain focused on Pristina airport about 20 kilometers west of the provincial capital. The 200 Russian soldiers who dashed to the airport overland ahead of NATO's entrance into Kosovo earlier this month still control all of the airport's entrance roads.
A few hundred meters down the road from one Russian checkpoint, British Gurkha paratroopers have set up their own checkpoint. Our correspondent also came across an UCK camp hidden in a wooded area less than a half a kilometer from the Russian positions. The British soldiers are patrolling the narrow strip of land between the Russians and the UCK.
While the Russians are allowing British troops to pass on the roads to the airport, there are still fewer NATO troops at the airfield than there are Russians. The Russians are still refusing to allow passage to western journalists unless they have a KFOR escort. Yesterday, our correspondent also observed the Russians turning away two vehicles carrying task force members from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
"Tell them that all the people are not here now. They went into the field because the new ones flew in. Let [the OSCE] come next week and the commander will communicate with them. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe the day after tomorrow."
The situation at Pristina airport has been changing rapidly since Saturday when a Russian Ilyushin-76 aircraft landed with a team of 39 paratroopers and engineers. It was the first plane to land at the airport since NATO ended its air raids against Yugoslavia earlier this month. Minutes after the Russian plane arrived, a French Hercules C-130 aircraft landed with a cargo of sophisticated air traffic control equipment needed to help bring the airfield up to the standards of an international airport.
Two Russian and two NATO planes also arrived yesterday, and another three from both Russia and NATO are due to arrive today. NATO's Major Joosten explained to RFE/RL how the alliance's agreement with Russia on reopening the airport is working:
"We will see some more aircraft landing in the coming period, all bringing in equipment and personnel to make the Pristina airport able to run as an operational airport. It will take [a total] of up to ten days, and after that the airport will be open for military traffic only. For the coming ten days, what we will see is an equal number of Russian and NATO planes landing every day. After that, it will depend on what equipment needs to be brought in. It can be a NATO plane. It can be a Russian plane. It can be a plane of another country that is going to participate in KFOR. It is going to be a KFOR airfield."
For the 200 Russians that have been guarding Pristina airport for weeks, their mission is nearly complete. A soldier named Nikolai from the Russian town of Bryansk told RFE/RL that he will be happy to leave because he is tired of being in Kosovo, especially after serving for more than a year as one of the Russian soldiers in the SFOR force in Bosnia.
"Soon we will be back home. The time is coming for us. As soon as our forces arrive from Russia, then we will fly home."
But another Russian soldier said that much remains to be done by Russian troops and others in KFOR before their job in Kosovo is complete. He told RFE/RL that the mission will end only when what he called "complete peace" is established in the province. He said that Russian troops will "have to work hard and work more" until the job is done.