In Kosovo's tense eastern market town of Kamenica, ethnic Albanian residents have been staging protests demanding the withdrawal of the Russian KFOR contingent. The Albanians say the Russians are biased in favor of local Serbs. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from the town that Russian and U.S. soldiers have started joint patrols in an effort to cool down tensions.
Kamenica, Kosovo; 24 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russian troops are in control of the town of Kamenica as part of the KFOR peacekeeping force. And the ethnic Albanians of Kamenica have held regular demonstrations to demand their withdrawal.
An Albanian pepper seller in the town's market, Remzi Zdio, says the protests have increased tensions by reducing the sense of security in Kamenica compared to nearby Gnjilane, where U.S. KFOR troops are based.
A dusk to dawn curfew is in effect in Kamenica (from 2000 to 0500), more stringent than in Gnjilane where the curfew now begins 90 minutes later. Both are in the U.S. controlled sector of Kosovo.
The Russian KFOR spokesman in Kamenica, Captain Ruslan Kompanets, tells RFE/RL that the situation in the town, although "complicated," has begun to approach normalcy in recent days.
"In the last three days, cases of shooting in general have been on the decline, not to mention that the Russian contingent here has not fired a shot since its arrival. The commander here for more than one month has been meeting with all the main leaders of the communities and of all structures to be found here and generally speaking, they have reached a mutual understanding."
But local Serbs say that the area remains tense, and that tensions are increased by frequent nighttime shootings. A Serbian pensioner, Vitomir Stevanovic said:
"The situation here is very difficult. Every one of us, every [Serb] who lives here amid this shooting, we all have to watch over our homes all night long. Otherwise when morning comes there is nothing left. We have to work our fields but we are not able to do so. If we go into the fields, [Albanians] start shooting."
Meanwhile, the chief of staff of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), Agim Ceku, last week alleged that Serbian paramilitaries have been infiltrating into the Kamenica area from Serbia. He says that they may be behind the frequent shootings.
But Russian KFOR Captain Kompanets says the shootings are not believed to have been by organized formations of Albanians or Serbs.
"At present we tend to the view that these are illegal organizations, one cannot term them formed bands since they are few in number, but they are not beholden to anyone. They are not taking orders from anyone. Until the last three days they were shooting, conducting diversionary acts against the Russian military contingent."
Kompanets says that in the absence of any civil administration in Kamenica, the local Russian KFOR commander, General Alexander Koshelnik, is in charge of the area.
"The commander of the 13th tactical group, in a sense, I'm not afraid to use this word, functions at the moment as a governor. That means he resolves all issues of life in the community here. Our Russian troops have been here since July 28 controlling this territory which it has been assigned by agreement. Until then the Americans were in charge and we were helping them. Now, the Russian military contingent is maintaining the sector on its own while in the border zones and on the border [with Serbia] we are patrolling jointly with the Americans."
Kompanets says the Russian contingent is cooperating and consulting normally with UCK representatives without complications. Meanwhile, UN police, mainly from the U.S., are beginning to arrive in Kamenica to take over civil policing functions from KFOR.
In the meantime, KFOR appears to have responded to the daily protests by sending more American troops to Kamenica and by experimenting with joint U.S.-Russian patrols. One of the American soldiers taking part is specialist Joseph Kruml. He says the local population often seems baffled about how to respond to the joint patrols.
"Usually when [American troops] are driving around, there is lots of cheering but when the Russians are driving around [ethnic Albanians] are always booing them and making this slashing of the throat sign. But when we rode around together with the Russians, people were confused because they didn't have this programmed emotional response. I mean some of them would cheer because they would see Americans on a vehicle, others didn't know what to do and others didn't see the Americans and so they would throw rocks at us anyway."
Kruml says the joint patrols he was on were productive, as he puts it, "on an American-Russian level and on a KFOR-to-local population level."
Kruml, however, says the situation in and around Kamenica remains unpredictable. He says any suggestion of a lessening of tensions is mere speculation.
A U.S. KFOR spokesman in Gnjilane, Captain David Reid, says the joint patrols in Kamenica are still in the experimental stage. Reid says Russian soldiers have also joined their U.S. counterparts in joint patrols in U.S.-controlled districts to the south. He calls the patrols "a demonstration that we are here for both the Serbian and the Albanian people."
"We do not base our actions on ethnicity. We instead are here to provide a stable and secure environment. If it continues to prove successful, we will continue to look at joint patrols in the future."
Regarding the still tense town of Kamenica, the U.S. KFOR spokesman says the main issue is to open the line of communication between local Serbs and Albanians and the Russian KFOR contingent.