British troops venture inside Serbia
PRISTINA, Mar 31, 2000 -- (Reuters) British troops in Kosovo crossed into Serbia proper on a mission to investigate a report that Yugoslav military vehicles had been in a forbidden boundary zone, NATO-led peacekeepers said on Thursday.
The KFOR force said the troops led by Brigadier General Richard Shirreff, commander of the British-led central military sector in Kosovo, had accompanied a group of expert observers on Wednesday into the so-called Ground Safety Zone.
While KFOR was publicly keen to give the mission a fairly low profile, officers acknowledged privately it was intended as something of a show of force to make clear that the peacekeepers would not tolerate incursions into the zone.
Under the agreement governing the withdrawal of Yugoslav Serb forces from Kosovo after NATO's bombing campaign last year, local Serb police are the only security personnel allowed within the five-km (three-mile) buffer zone on the Serbian side.
Flight Lieutenant Rob Hannam, a press officer for British forces, said the mission had been arranged to verify a report by Czech troops earlier this week that a Yugoslav Army tank and armored personnel carrier may have been inside the zone.
The observers found tracks which appeared to belong to at least one heavy-duty vehicle and photographs of the tracks were now being evaluated, Hannam said.
KFOR closely monitors the ground safety zone for any violations which could signify sabre-rattling by Serb forces or, under the most extreme scenario, herald an attempt by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to move back into Kosovo.
Members from the Joint Implementation Commission, which monitors the Military Technical Agreement with Yugoslavia, have visited the zone before, KFOR said, but officers acknowledged Wednesday's mission was more than just a normal inspection.
"That was the point of the Brigadier going," said one KFOR officer. "Anyone could have gone in there with a digital camera and taken some pictures."
The commission members were accompanied by Shirreff, the commander of KFOR's Multinational Brigade Centre, and around 20 soldiers from Britain's Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
A quick reaction force including Challenger Two tanks and Warrior armored personnel carriers was positioned just on the Kosovo side of the boundary throughout the operation.
Publicly, KFOR was keen to stress that the visit had been conducted with the accord of Yugoslav forces.
"It wasn't as if there wasn't any agreement," said Lieutenant Commander Philip Anido, KFOR's spokesman. "It is not our intent to show aggressive force in the zone."
KFOR is wary of increasing tensions in the boundary zone. Several armed incidents and explosions have been reported there this year. These took in the Presevo Valley region, however - some way south of the area which KFOR inspected on Thursday.