By Roberto SuroGIs raid militias in Kosovo
Thursday, March 16, 2000
U.S. troops in Kosovo yesterday raided command posts, staging areas and arms caches of ethnic Albanian militias in what U.S. and NATO officials described as the first military action against former allies who now threaten the success of the Kosovo peacekeeping mission.
American officials said the operation was a preemptive strike to prevent Kosovo Albanian fighters from smuggling weapons and launching cross-border attacks into Serbia from the U.S.-patrolled sector of southeastern Kosovo. Such attacks have threatened to provoke a new confrontation between U.S. peacekeepers and Serbian forces under the control of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
"We are committed to providing the Kosovo Albanians with a safe and secure environment, but we are not providing them with strategic cover," said a senior NATO official. "Cross-border raids would hand Milosevic a pretext on a plate."
The operation came just one day after a senior Pentagon official warned that American soldiers might have to confront their former allies in Kosovo this spring. Although U.S. troops exchanged fire with ethnic Albanian militants at one location, no casualties were reported on either side.
U.S. military officials in Europe cautiously portrayed the action as only a first step to rein in the Kosovo Albanians, including former members of the disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army who have been trying to spark a new ethnic Albanian insurgency in the Presevo Valley of southern Serbia, just outside Kosovo.
French peacekeepers, meanwhile, clashed with Serbian protesters in the northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica. At least 15 Serbs were injured when the French troops used tear gas and stun grenades to clear the protesters off a bridge that divides the city into rival zones populated by ethnic Albanians and Serbs, the Associated Press reported.
Concerned about the rising violence in Kosovo, President Clinton spoke by telephone with French President Jacques Chirac and called for a cabinet-level meeting of the so-called Contact Group on Kosovo, comprised of the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Russia, according to Chirac's spokeswoman.
State Department spokesman James P. Rubin, who just returned from an emergency mission to seek the cooperation of Kosovo Albanian leaders, said in an interview that despite the U.S. raids, "we do not believe we are drifting towards a conflict with Kosovo Albanian insurgents."
As a result of his meetings, Rubin added, "I believe that there is a deep reservoir of respect, thanks and goodwill towards the United States, not only among the political leaders but at lower levels as well."
Some military officers took a less optimistic view. "We have now fired the first shot at the Albanian insurgents, and insurgents have a tendency to carry a grudge," said a senior officer involved in the Kosovo operation. "If they come to see us as the enemy, then today was a turning point."
During the 78-day NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia last spring, the United States and the KLA were unofficial allies in forcing Milosevic's troops to withdraw from Kosovo.
Although NATO formally disarmed the KLA last summer, former members of the ethnic Albanian force, along with new recruits, have formed small, illegal militia groups in the U.S. patrolled-sector. According to U.S. officials, some have only a dozen or so committed members, and altogether they may be able to muster only a few hundred fighters in the U.S. zone. But the Clinton administration and U.S. commanders on the scene have grown increasingly concerned that the insurgents might stir Milosevic into action.
Arriving by helicopter and in armored vehicles, U.S. Army troops yesterday morning struck at five sites in southeastern Kosovo and seized larger quantities of arms, ammunition, uniforms and documents than on the small-scale searches conducted in the past, U.S. officials in Europe said.
"This was the first time we went after something like an organized military infrastructure, as opposed to searching houses where we suspected someone was hiding a rifle or two," a senior U.S. officer said.
The seizures included 22 crates of ammunition for infantry weapons, 28 hand grenades, two mortars and an assortment of other arms, according to U.S. forces in Kosovo.
Seven specially organized units, each with scores of infantry, conducted the raids together with military police, demolition crews and other specialists, U.S. military officials said. The U.S. forces encountered minefields and booby traps, and they detained nine ethnic Albanians for harboring illegal arms. Dozens of other people were questioned and released, the officials said.
Most of the sites were abandoned farms or villages within 10 miles of the boundary between Kosovo, a province of Serbia dominated by ethnic Albanians, and Serbia proper. In recent weeks militant Albanians have conducted forays around the Serbian town of Presevo, where they claim Serbian policemen have been harassing ethnic Albanians.
"The U.S. forces have dramatically changed their policy in the face of some real trouble, because for a long time they allowed this to be a very porous border with a lot of movement back and forth," said Jim Hooper, Washington director of the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization that monitors world hot spots.