Russian troops enter Kosovo; Moscow orders them to leave
June 11, 1999
PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (CNN) -- Welcomed by a cheering mob of Serb residents, an armored column of Russian troops rolled into Kosovo's provincial capital, Pristina, early Saturday, despite Moscow's promises that it would not send its forces into Kosovo before NATO.
However, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told CNN the surprise entry of Russian troops was an "unfortunate" mistake and that they had been ordered to leave Kosovo immediately. Ivanov said the reason why the Russians moved into the province was being clarified.
Hundreds of smiling and waving Russian soldiers wearing camouflage fatigues entered Pristina perched atop their military vehicles. Residents lined the streets, cheering, chanting and tossing flowers onto the convoy of trucks and armored personnel carriers -- marked with the bold letters "KFOR," the symbol for the international peacekeeping force.
At one point, a group of residents climbed onto a vehicle and unfurled a Yugoslav flag, joyfully waving its blue, white and red stripes.
Stunned U.S. officials in Washington called emergency meetings on how to respond to the Russian move. White House spokesman Joe Lockhart told CNN the administration was "pleased" with Ivanov's statement and said the administration feels confident the troops will now move back.
At the Pentagon, a senior official said the entry of the estimated 200 Russian troops into Kosovo is "militarily insignificant," but cautioned that the unexpected move could pose political problems.
In Moscow, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott rushed into talks with Russian officials for an explanation.
There was no immediate response from NATO, which is poised to send thousands of British, German, French and U.S. troops into Kosovo sometime Saturday morning to enforce a Kosovo peace agreement.
The Russian contingent had moved into Yugoslavia on Friday from Bosnia, where Russian troops serve alongside NATO in a peacekeeping force established at the end of the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. The convoy paraded through Belgrade before heading south towards Kosovo.
The Russians' sudden appearance caught NATO off-guard, briefly escalating tensions between the alliance and Moscow. The situation eased once Russian leaders promised U.S. officials they would wait for an agreement on the peacekeeping force before entering Kosovo.
"We've been given absolute assurances that they won't move into Kosovo," U.S. Vice President Al Gore said.
Ivanov spoke to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about the matter Friday, telling Albright the Russians' mission was to scout for a staging area that would be used for later Russian elements of KFOR.
The United States and Russia are trying to work out differences over the makeup of KFOR. Russia has insisted on patrolling its own sector of Kosovo and has refused to put its troops under NATO command.
Talbott said Friday that Russia and NATO would "move forward together."
"That isn't to prejudge what the nature and arrangements will be for Russian participation in KFOR, nor has Russia decided categorically that it is going to be part of KFOR," Talbott said. But he warned that a unilateral Russian move would be "potentially quite dangerous."
Hours after the Russians first appeared in Yugoslavia, the vanguard of NATO's peacekeeping force was ordered into Kosovo, then told without explanation to stand down.
Helicopters carrying British airborne troops and some U.S. forces were poised to move into Kosovo from Skopje, Macedonia, when the order was rescinded.
NATO plans to deploy nearly 50,000 troops in Kosovo as Yugoslav forces withdraw, as outlined in a peace agreement signed Wednesday by Yugoslav and NATO generals.
In Macedonia, where tens of thousands of NATO troops have massed to move into Kosovo behind the outgoing Yugoslav army, NATO and Yugoslav commanders met again Friday at a coffee shop on the border.
NATO officials in Brussels said most of the Kosovo peacekeeping force would move into Kosovo on Saturday, with British and French forces leading the way. Brig. Jonathan Bailey said the talks would help coordinate "the movement in and the movement out."
The coffee shop was where initial talks on the withdrawal were held last week.
The mission of the peacekeepers will be to "monitor, verify, and, when necessary, to enforce compliance" with the agreement Yugoslavia accepted last week, said British Lt. Gen. Michael Jackson, KFOR's commander.
"What we do in Kosovo will be both robust and completely even-handed," Jackson said Friday.
In Kosovo, meanwhile, the Yugoslav army's exodus from Kosovo continued. Trucks, troops and civilians streamed out of the battered province while NATO troops prepared to move in.
Yugoslav armor and mobile anti-aircraft weapons moved northward, along with private cars full of Serbs fleeing the province. The Serbs fear reprisals by Kosovar Albanians, hundreds of thousands of whom are expected to return over the next three months.
An estimated 40,000 Yugoslav troops or special forces in Kosovo are scheduled to withdraw from the province. The pullout must be completed by June 21, according to a NATO- backed peace deal approved by the U.N. Security Council on Thursday.
The war began after Yugoslavia rejected a peace agreement for Kosovo similar to one that it accepted last week. The accords were aimed at ending a year of conflict between the ethnic Albanians, who make up the majority of Kosovo's population, and Serbs.
NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana warned that NATO could resume its bombardment if Yugoslavia reneged on its agreement to withdraw. And he added that separatist rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army must also stand down during the withdrawal.
"Violence or noncompliance by any party will not be tolerated," he said.
KLA leader Hassim Thaci said Thursday that his group would demilitarize and develop a political organization. Thaci said the KLA will "not attack Serbian troops that are withdrawing, but we reserve the right to defend ourselves."
Correspondents Jim Clancy, John King and Jill Dougherty contributed to this report.
NATO set to enter Kosovo on Saturday
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