American troops in Kosovo restricted to US sectorBy Roberto Suro
Wednesday, March 1, 2000
U.S. troops in Kosovo will stick to their own turf under orders announced by the Pentagon yesterday that sharply limit missions to assist the peacekeepers of other nationalities.
The new restrictions reflect concerns in the Defense Department and the White House over a violent encounter last week between a Serbian mob and American soldiers who had been sent to help French peacekeepers with a police action in the French sector, according to a senior military official.
"The issue here is, how often do we get dragged into a situation where we have to perform out-of-sector operations that can diminish our ability to operate within our own sector?" Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon said.
About 5,300 U.S. troops patrol the southeastern sector of Kosovo. French, Italian, German and British forces are in charge of their own sectors of the troubled Serbian province. The extent to which troops of various nationalities are available to reinforce each other has become a matter of both military and diplomatic dispute, as NATO peacekeepers contend with rising unrest while their own numbers decline.
The new orders came in a letter from Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to NATO's top military commander, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark.
"The chairman made it clear that he doesn't think it's appropriate for American troops to go to out-of-sector operations on a regular basis to take up police work that should be done by the forces in those other sectors," Bacon said.
The still-classified letter was dated Feb. 20, Bacon said. That was the day when a battalion of 350 U.S. soldiers helped conduct a house-to-house search for illegal weapons in Mitrovica, a town in the French sector where Serbs and the ethnic Albanians who dominate Kosovo have frequently clashed. The Americans encountered a rock-throwing mob of protesting Serbs; and although no U.S. soldier was seriously injured, senior civilian and military policymakers felt the mission was risky and unnecessary, senior officials said.
Clark informed Washington about the mission but ordered it on his own authority, just as he had on two previous occasions when U.S forces went to the aid of peacekeepers in other sectors. Appearing before a congressional hearing yesterday, Clark defended cross-sector operations as essential in Kosovo.
Under the terms of Shelton's letter, however, U.S. troops will operate in other sectors only "on an extraordinary emergency basis," Bacon said.