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At Kosovo edge, US troops nab rebels, potatoes

A NATO border force aims to cut off the rebels in Macedonia.

By Richard Mertens Special to The Christian Science Monitor / March 27, 2001


High on the rugged border between Kosovo and Macedonia, US Army Sgt. Donald Lindley sits in a clump of scrub oaks, peering through binoculars down onto the red-tile roofs of an abandoned village. He and his partner, Spc. Brendan Hagan, are spending the afternoon perched on this hillside, overlooking some of the most difficult terrain in Kosovo, watching for anything that moves.

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The soldiers are part of a platoon of 27 paratroopers from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. The Army moved them here 2-1/2 weeks ago as part of an effort to stop ethnic-Albanian fighters, and mules carrying munitions and food, from crossing into Macedonia.

The Macedonian government has criticized the NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo for failing to close off the border sooner. The success - or failure - of platoons like this one to cut off supplies and rebel reinforcements could determine how long the unrest around Tetovo, Macedonia, goes on.

Lt. Paul Grant, the tall, bespectacled platoon leader here, says his unit and the others stationed in these hills are equipped to stop

almost anyone that tries to pass through.

In addition to this platoon, the US is supplying unmanned drones to fly over the hills of Macedonia, where government troops launched an offensive on Sunday. Rebels and hundreds of civilians fled villages around Tetovo. Some refugees, on arrival in Kosovo, claim they were fired on by Macedonian helicopter gunships.

The soldiers at OP Bravo man lookout posts 24-hours a day. They conduct frequent patrols across the ridges and into the wooded valleys. Often, Grant says, they respond to radio reports from other outposts and from helicopters that hover over the border region looking for suspicious activity. "We have night vision. We have thermal imaging. We have soldiers out in the country day and night," he says. "We see people all the time... We're quite adept at finding people out here."

The American outpost lies dozens of miles from the main fighting in Macedonia. But it is close to where the unrest started last month, in the remote mountain village of Tanusevci. There, Macedonian special forces confronted a small group of rebels and drove them out, together with the entire civilian population.

Even now, the Americans occasionally hear the distant boom of artillery, or see the flash of a rocket launcher on a nearby hill, a sign that sporadic fighting continues in northern Macedonia.

The Macedonian Army is close by. On a rock outcrop a third of a mile away, Macedonian snipers look down into Tanusevci - with orders, the Americans say, to shoot anything that moves inside Macedonia.

The Americans often talk to the Macedonians over the radio, telling them when and where they are sending patrols, so they don't get shot at.

Three weeks ago, American soldiers engaged in a brief gunfight with five or six ethnic-Albanian rebels, who were using the school the Americans now occupy as a base. All but one, who was injured, got away.

Since then, the Americans believe, their presence has for the most part discouraged ethnic-Albanian fighters from using this section of the border.

But they may be trying elsewhere. Last Wednesday night, American soldiers intercepted a group of about 30 men working their way up a small valley a few miles east, according to Col. Bryan Owens, who led the patrol. The fighters scattered, but the Americans captured their equipment: five horses loaded with a variety of weapons, including bolt action rifles, AK-47s, sniper rifles, antitank mines, rocket-propelled grenades, and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

"That was a large operation for them," Colonel Owens says. "I think we set them back."

Owens says the rebels came from the town of Kacanik, about 10 miles away, and worked their way along the border region, picking up recruits. Some of the men were from Kosovo, Owens says, others from Macedonia.