Keeping order on Kosovo border
US troops are trying to block incursions by ethnic Albanians. Raids March 15 found mortars, uniforms.
Single file and laden with gear, eight American soldiers trudge along a muddy track in the hills of southern Kosovo. They speak little, communicating with hand signals and low whistles.Skip to next paragraph
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The track leads them up a high, forested ridge that separates Kosovo from the rest of Serbia. Last year, ethnic-Albanian refugees from nearby villages used it to flee into Macedonia during a crackdown by Yugoslav troops. The killings and mass expulsions prompted 78 days of NATO airstrikes followed by the arrival of an international protection force, known as KFOR, in Kosovo.
The US soldiers pass eerie reminders of the refugees' flight: piles of garbage, discarded clothing, a girl's platform shoe. But these relics of old terror do not interest them. They are on the lookout for fresh threats to Kosovo's shaky peace.
"If we see any tractors or vehicles coming down that route, we'll search them and ask them questions," Sgt. Terrence Riley has instructed his soldiers, adding that they are looking for "new fighting positions," unexploded munitions, and mine fields.
This routine patrol is part of increasing efforts to head off a fresh outbreak of violence just over the Kosovo border. An ethnic-Albanian guerrilla force has recently emerged in the Presevo Valley, a predominantly Albanian area of southern Serbia to the east of Kosovo. The group has clashed with Serbian police and alarmed officials overseeing the peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. The insurgency especially worries the Americans, who are responsible for the region of Kosovo bordering the Presevo Valley. US Army commanders believe the guerrillas are being supplied from Kosovo and could attempt to use the territory to mount attacks on Serbian police. A Pentagon official warned this week that the Americans could themselves wind up in a confrontation with the insurgents.
On Wednesday, US troops carried out dawn raids at five separate locations within two miles of the border. The effort uncovered at least one site identified as a "training or staging" base. The US military's Task Force Falcon announced the sweep resulted in nine arrests and the confiscation of 22 crates of ammunition, as well as mortars, hand grenades, rifles, land mines, explosives, and more than 200 uniforms. Some bore the insignia of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac, the new rebel group. Task Force Falcon said no one was hurt, and no shots were fired. Some locations were protected by mine fields, it said.
It was the biggest operation yet for the US peacekeepers along the border. But if it demonstrated resolve to stop insurgents from using Kosovo as a base, it also gave evidence of the challenge the Americans face. Senior US and international military and civilian officials call the insurgents "fringe elements." It's estimated they number about 500 fighters in eight to 10 separate groups. They include former members of the disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic-Albanian force that fought Serbian police in Kosovo from 1998 until last spring.