Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company
January 25, 2001

NATO Patrols Edgy Border, This Time Protecting Serbs

By MICHAEL R. GORDON

 

ALONG THE KOSOVO-SERBIA BOUNDARY ó This rugged region of snow-covered hillsides and winding paths is NATO's newest front in its campaign to stabilize the Balkans.

The adversary this time is not the Serbian military. It is a force of ethnic Albanian guerrillas fighting for control of a strip of impoverished Serbian territory next to Kosovo.

Specialist Joseph McGugan, 22, tasted the danger directly on Dec. 18 when he was guarding a United States Army demolition team and bursts of gunfire kicked up the dirt by his feet.

A joint American and Russian patrol had just blown up a road the Albanian insurgents were suspected of using to haul arms and supplies from Kosovo to stoke the rebellion in southern Serbia. The rebels registered their displeasure with a burst of gunfire from their positions on the Serbian side of the Kosovo-Serbia boundary.

"There were bullets all around my feet, head, arms, limbs, my whole body," Specialist McGugan recalled.

Specialist McGugan could not see where the fire came from and, wary of hitting civilians, held his fire. But the Russians fired away. As the patrol made a hurried getaway, the Russians cried out that the rebels were preparing to fire a mortar round at the peacekeepers.

The insurgents were sternly warned not to challenge the peacekeepers again, and the push to control the boundary has continued. American officers say the goal is to deprive the insurgents of the weapons and supplies they need to start a spring offensive.

British soldiers, operating from camouflaged observation posts and using tactics adopted from their long hunt of Irish Republican Army guerrillas in Northern Ireland, have captured several arms caches and captured bands of guerrillas.

In one overzealous mission, a British helicopter mistakenly crossed the boundary earlier this month and dropped a four-man team in the middle of the insurgents' training camp.

Swedish soldiers patrol winding mountain trails on skis while Finnish troops staff checkpoints on the nearby roads in Kosovo.

American Army Kiowa reconnaissance helicopters prowl the frontier, and American artillery batteries fire illumination rounds to light up the border for American patrols. Indeed, the United States military is now devoting about 25 percent of its Kosovo resources ó soldiers, aircraft and intelligence ó to interdicting the flow of rebel supplies and volunteers.

While sealing the twisting boundary is impossible, the peacekeepers' say their operations are starting to take a toll on the rebels. Sixty suspected rebels, whose numbers range from 500 to 800, according to American intelligence, are now in detention at Camp Bondsteel, the Americans' main base.

"We have stolen all of their food, taken quite a few of their weapons and been patrolling and detaining individuals," said Lt. Col. Stephen Kilpatrick, the British commander of the First Battalion of the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, which is responsible for many of the recent captures. "They are really uneasy about our presence."

It was not supposed to be this way. When the Kosovo war ended in 1999 after a 78-day bombing campaign and a force of international peacekeepers was dispatched to the province, the main worry was to stop ethnic strife in Kosovo and deter Serbian soldiers and police officers from returning.

Nobody anticipated that one of their most important ó and potentially dangerous ó tasks would be to guard Serbia against an Albanian insurgency, rather than protect Kosovo Albanians from Serbian forces.

The cease-fire arrangement with the Serbs, however, unintentionally has forced the peacekeepers to worry about just that.

In NATO's effort to keep Belgrade's forces at a safe distance, a three-mile-wide buffer zone was established on the Serbian side of the Kosovo-Serbian boundary. Only lightly armed Serbian police officers are allowed to operate in the "Ground Safety Zone," as it is called, and the peacekeepers are allowed to enter only under extraordinary conditions.

But the zone is also home to a sizable ethnic Albanian population that has long chafed under Belgrade's rule. Taking advantage of the ban on a Serbian military presence, the Albanians have turned the zone into a hotbed of resistance, founding the grandly named Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (three of the towns they wish to "free").

Though the liberation group says it is a defensive force, it has attacked Serbian police officers, killing four in November. While the liberation army is a loose confederation of local rebel groups, NATO officials fear that some of the insurgents may be trying to provoke Belgrade into dispatching military forces into the zone to try to quash the rebellion. That would certainly represent a violation of the cease-fire arrangements and damage relations between NATO and the newly elected government of Serbia.

But it could also destabilize the whole region by prompting ethnic Albanians in Kosovo ó some of whom have already joined the guerrilla force ó and in neighboring Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro to rush to the rebels' aid.

"There is the potential for a sort of explosion," Carlo Cabigiosu, the Italian lieutenant general who commands the 38,000-strong multinational peacekeeping force in Kosovo, said in an interview. "It could be a new, so to say, `little Kosovo' started in southern Serbia," he added, alluding to the Serb-Albanian clashes that preceded the 1999 Kosovo war.

General Cabigiosu said the best way to defuse the situation would be political negotiation between the Serbian authorities and the ethnic Albanians to protect their rights in Serbia, ensure they have access to social services and improve the area's economy.

The peacekeepers have some influence over the insurgents. After the liberation army hijacked a Serbian payroll in mid-January that was intended for Serbian teachers in Kosovo, General Cabigiosu's political adviser coaxed them to return it. Belgrade, for its part, has so far refrained from a heavy-handed crackdown.

In the meantime, however, a force of American, British, Russian and other international peacekeepers are trying to choke the rebellion by cutting off their supplies from Kosovo.

The boundary mission represents something of a turnabout for the American military.

After the Kosovo war ended, NATO's then overall military commander, Gen. Wesley K. Clark, proposed that the Americans be stationed in the northern part of the province, a mission that would thrust them into one potential flashpoint ó the divided town of Mitrovica in the north. But the Pentagon demurred. It insisted that the American sector be in the ostensible safer territory of southeast Kosovo.

So today the Americans control "Multi-National Brigade East," the sector that abuts the 55-mile-long Kosovo-Serbian boundary and which is precisely the region through which the insurgents are now trying to move supplies to their fighters in the adjoining buffer zone.

Some 5,200 American troops operate in the sector, as do more than 2,300 British, Finnish, Swedish, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Lithuanian, Italian, Greek, Jordanian and United Arab Emirates troops.

The inadvertent decision to put the United States force on NATO's new front line has enabled the Americans to take advantage of their high-tech weapons and practice combat skills. Hardened British soldiers, brought into the American-controlled sector in eastern Kosovo last month to help tighten the control of the boundary, however, have achieved much of the recent success.

The British pride themselves on their austere military life and willingness to take more risks than their American counterparts. British soldiers drive to the snow-capped ridges in tracked vehicles and camp out in small pup tents, boiling foil bags of rations for food and hiding their presence by banning the use of flashlights at night.

Some guard chilly observation posts, where teams of soldiers keep watch for shifts as long as 48 to 72 hours. Others are lifted from their mountain encampment deeper into the wild to conduct patrols and search for telltale trails in the snow.

The British have also set up ground-based radars that can detect the movement of a rabbit and use mobile quick reaction teams to swoop down on supply columns and insurgents.

"This is what we do well," said Brig. Robert Fry, the commander of the British forces in Kosovo. "What the Americans do well is provide a guarantee of overwhelming force. This plays to our strength in ways that it does not necessarily play to American strengths."

Sgt. Cliff Lea scored one of the biggest British successes. After hearing the rumble of a tractor, he scampered from the ruins of a building near the border on Dec. 20, and with the aid of two other soldiers, captured 13 insurgents and three vehicles full of heavy-machine guns, grenades and other arms.

"It is the most fun I had in 15 years in the army," he said.

The British soldiers' gung-ho approach has had its comic side. On Jan. 7, a British Puma helicopter was ordered to whisk a four-man team to intercept a band of rebels who appeared to be moving from Serbia into Kosovo. But when the soldiers jumped out, they discovered that they had been deposited on the wrong side of the Kosovo-Serbian boundary and smack inside the rebels' training camp, which the British have nicknamed Fort Benning.

The startled insurgents asked the British if they had come to help them in their fight against the Serbs. Keeping their cool, the British troops asked the rebels to put down their weapons, shook hands with their adversaries and anxiously waited for their helicopter to return.

"It was quite a bracing moment," Brigadier Fry said.

British commanders are concerned that their success might lead the insurgents to send more supplies through the Russian sector to the north. The Russians have captured only one suspected insurgent since November, said Lt. Col. Oleg V. Rekin, the Russian commander. The Russians take a much more static approach to monitoring the boundary, and seem afraid to stir up further enmity from the Albanians, who then tend to view them as allies of the Serbs.

In an effort to plug the gap, the American forces are stepping up their cooperation with the Russians, including the firing of illumination rounds over the boundary and joint patrols.

The American troops have also been working with the British. One of the biggest captures of suspected insurgents took place on Jan. 6 when British troops came upon a group of suspected rebels who have ventured into Kosovo to pick up a shipment of arms.

After encountering the British, the insurgents broke into a mad dash. Rob Smith and Scott Fitzgerald, two American Kiowa reconnaissance helicopter pilots, flew along the boundary, trying to block the Albanians from returning to the boundary zone while the British gave chase.

After several hours, British soldiers collared nine suspected liberation army members. The Albanians claimed they were looking for a lost cow. But the British punctured that alibi by sending a soldier disguised as a veterinary expert to the farm of one of their detainees, where he found the cow in question present and accounted for.

That was not the only evidence the British collected. They also confiscated 22 rifles, one with a round in its chamber.