British troops defy Milosevic with show of strength on Kosovo border

PODUJEVO, Yugoslavia, Sep 6, 2000 -- (AFP) British tanks rolled out of the woods within yards of Kosovo's boundary with Serbia Tuesday, in a show of force after Yugoslav forces said they were ready to return to the province.

Tanks, sniper teams, armored infantry and a helicopter were used in the operation, sweeping suddenly out of cover in the broken terrain near Gate Three, within sight of the first Serbian police checkpoint on the road from Podujevo to Nis, journalists at the scene reported.

"It's an operation primarily to deter aggression from across the border," said Major Harry Hanscombe, second-in-command of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment battlegroup which arrived in Kosovo three weeks ago.

On Friday, almost 1,000 Yugoslav soldiers backed up with tanks and helicopters held exercises in southeastern Serbia, declaring themselves ready to return to the province from which they were driven last year by a NATO bombing campaign.

"We also want to reassure local people that we have the capability, should we require it, to protect them," said Hanscombe, whose unit forms part of the multinational KFOR peacekeeping force.

"We are not practicing peacekeeping operations. We are practising fighting a war, containing any armored attack from Serbia," he added.

As he was speaking, a six-man sniper team wearing camouflage netting stepped out of a thicket directly on the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia, around 50 yards (meters) from a Serbian interior ministry (MUP) paramilitary police checkpoint and jeep.

"We didn't warn them what we were going to do. We hoped they'd get all excited and get on their radios and we'd see how they react," Hanscombe said.

Under the agreement signed by NATO and Belgrade's forces in June last year bringing to an end a 78-day bombardment of Yugoslavia, all Yugoslav troops had to leave the province immediately, with less than 1,000 eventually to return.

Yugoslav chief-of-staff General Nebojsa Pavkovic has said his men are ready to do so, a claim demonstrated by Friday's high-profile exercise, but KFOR has warned they will be attacked if they try to return without permission.

Original article