Pentagon: Russian presence at Pristina airport 'very minor'
U.S. confident peacekeeping deal will be reached
June 15, 1999
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Top U.S. officials expressed confidence Monday that an agreement will soon be reached to include 2,000 Russian troops in NATO-led peacekeeping operations in Kosovo.
President Bill Clinton spoke on the phone with Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin for a second straight day as administration officials continued to downplay the encampment of Russian troops at the airport in Pristina, the provincial capital of Kosovo.
"The 200 (Russian) troops are a very minor part of what's happening in Kosovo today," said Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon.
"The main thing happening in Kosovo is that the Serbs are leaving and NATO is coming in, and soon the refugees will be able to come back," he said.
More Russian troops left Bosnia on Tuesday en route to the Pristina airport, and the Pentagon expected the move.
Russia dispatched a truck supply convoy from Bosnia to bring supplies and communications equipment to the troops at the airport before returning to base.
The Pentagon also cited U.S. intelligence reports that indicate Russia is preparing transport planes to fly as many as 1,000 troops into Kosovo.
But Bacon stressed that there is no evidence that Russia will break its pledge not to send more troops to Kosovo until an agreement with NATO is worked out.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced Monday that she and Defense Secretary William Cohen will meet with their Russian counterparts in Finland this week, hoping to break a stalemate over Moscow's role in the peacekeeping force.
Russia, which is not a NATO member, refuses to allow its peacekeepers to be under the alliance's command and wants to control its own sector in northern Kosovo, where ethnic Serbs are concentrated.
Albright told reporters the telephone discussions between Clinton and Yeltsin on Monday led to "real progress" on the issue.
Albright said both she and Cohen would be going to Helsinki "in the next few days" for talks with Russian Defense Minister Marshal Igor Sergeyev and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.
The United States had hoped to reach an agreement with Moscow before Clinton departs Tuesday night for a trip to Europe and a meeting of the leaders of the seven industrialized nations and Russia in Germany.
By Tuesday, Serb forces and police are supposed to have withdrawn from the southern portions of Kosovo. The Pentagon released aerial surveillance pictures that show highways out of southern Kosovo jammed with Yugoslav convoys.
Although it appears unlikely they will meet the Tuesday deadline, Bacon said that U.S. troops in the region "will not do anything to interfere with their exodus."
"They (Serbs) seem to be doing their best to comply," he said.
Meantime, minor confrontations, but no serious incidents, were reported Monday as the first of more than 1,200 U.S. Marines entered Kosovo to take up positions in what will become the U.S.-controlled zone of the Yugoslav province.
The first Marine convoy to enter Kosovo moved at first light Monday morning from its position in Macedonia, the base of U.S. operations.
Armored units from the Army deployed a few miles away in the village of Sojevo.
Army soldiers told CNN they encountered no difficulties en route, although retreating Serb soldiers shouted verbal insults. During one tense moment, a retreating Yugoslav soldier who pulled a gun was subdued by fellow soldiers. No shots were fired.
In a separate incident, Marines on the main road to Pristina ducked into combat position behind their vehicles when they heard gunfire coming from houses 500 meters (a quarter-mile) away.
They said they didn't believe they were the targets.
"We were all a little edgy going in. We've got our guard up," said Cpl. Will Rapier, 20, of Paintsville, Kentucky, with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines. "We just hope to get this thing over so we can all go home."
Correspondents Christiane Amanpour, Matthew Chance and John King contributed to this report.
U.S. tanks rumble to Pristina
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