SAS plane crash cost Nato race for Pristina

Tom Walker

A SECRET mission by British SAS troops to beat the Russians to Pristina airport on the night before Nato's liberation of Kosovo ended in disaster when their Hercules transport plane crashed on takeoff in northern Albania, sources in the province have revealed.

General Sir Mike Jackson, former commander of the Nato-led Kfor troops, has always said he wanted to avoid confrontation with the Russians. But the doomed SAS mission suggests he was prepared to fly two squads of elite troops into a risky operation with unpredictable results.

"It may have been a blessing that the plane crashed," one military official in Kosovo admitted last week. "It could have averted a firefight."

The Hercules C-130, with its registration number blanked out, exploded in a ball of flame near a refugee camp outside Kukes, 15 miles from the Kosovo border, at 11.30pm on Friday, June 11, the eve of Nato's invasion. Because the plane's mission was unknown, little significance was attached to the crash.

However, it appears to have been a turning point that allowed the Russians a vital public relations coup. The outcome infuriated General Wesley Clark, Jackson's American superior, who saw Nato's seizure of the airport as vital.

As the Hercules ran into difficulties the Russians, who had spent Friday driving through Serbia from Bosnia, had only just received diplomatic clearance to continue towards the Kosovo capital. The SAS unit was a 30-minute hop from Pristina airport and would have beaten them by at least an hour.

Instead, its 12 soldiers found themselves in a nightmare: one who was caught in the crash inferno was badly burnt and lost part of a leg.

The Hercules pilot has nevertheless been praised for his quick thinking in avoiding a worse disaster. As the plane struggled to take off from a short landing strip he realised a shifting load had made it dangerously unstable.

He banked to make an emergency landing but clipped a building, starting a spin that he just corrected before the aircraft broke apart at the end of the runway, 200yds from an Albanian refugee camp.

A Ministry of Defence inquiry is examining how the load - which included Land Rovers, motorbikes and ammunition - came loose, trapping the injured soldier.

Officials in Pristina say the mission fell within Jackson's overall plan for SAS troops to secure all points of entry into Kosovo. One said an explosive row between Jackson and Clark - in which Jackson famously said "it's not worth starting world war three" for control of Pristina airport - could have been avoided had the SAS reached it first.

Officials say the airport showdown was not the only point of conflict between the two men. One said Jackson was "tempted to resign - he couldn't do his job". Eventually Tony Blair was alerted and he phoned President Bill Clinton, who told Clark to go easy on Jackson.

"Military historians will eventually have a field day with the Kosovo conflict," the source said. He predicted increased scrutiny of the role of the SAS, which was more involved than had been realised.

Any role played by the SAS in calling in Nato airstrikes remains unclear, although many analysts question the official claim that it was not inside Kosovo during the campaign.

The SAS shared communications equipment with the Kosovo Liberation Army on the Albanian border, and such links eventually allowed liaison units to "be in position over all the land routes into Kosovo", one source said.

Little love was lost between them and American CIA agents, based in Tirana. "You get the best and the worst in the Americans," said the source. "These were the worst - they were trailer trash. They shouldn't have been allowed out without adult supervision."

The incompetence of American intelligence, he said, led to a lack of readiness among American Kfor troops that delayed the force's eventual deployment by 24 hours.

A Russian surveillance vessel, the Liman, kept a constant watch on Nato operations from the Adriatic. The SAS was not surprised that the Russians moved so quickly towards Pristina. "They had a humanitarian interest," said one source. "They knew that if they didn't get to Pristina rapidly, the KLA could be there first and that would have meant big problems for local Serbs."

The Sunday Times - October 24 1999