At Kosovo edge, US troops nab rebels, potatoes

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

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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.

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.

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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.

Tough terrain

Army officials and soldiers in the field say they can't completely stop border traffic here, where there is a long history of smuggling. The valleys are steep and wooded, and interlaced with dirt tracks. But Army officials say that what they can't stop, they can at least disrupt.

"I don't think we can shut it down," says Col. Gene Kamena, deputy commander for maneuvers with American peacekeepers in Kosovo. "But by interdicting them, I think we're changing their patterns. They know we're out there. They're not very comfortable right now. I want to make their lives miserable."

A Macedonian official, who asked not to be named, said the government was pleased with the efforts of the Americans and other units in the American sector. But he said fighters were still crossing the border in the German sector of southern Kosovo. The Germans are responsible for the part of Kosovo that borders the high mountains above the city of Tetovo, where most of the fighting has been centered. He said that 500 fighters had crossed the border in the past two weeks.

The US Army is responsible for about 100 miles of border, almost equally divided between Serbia and Macedonia.

It began to position soldiers along the Serbian border last spring, when an armed ethnic-Albanian group emerged in the Presevo Valley, just east of the American sector in Serbia proper.

The new president of Yugoslavia, Vojislav Kostunica, has criticized NATO for not doing more to prevent ethnic-Albanian fighters from crossing that border.

NATO responds

In response, NATO has agreed to allow the Yugoslav Army into a three-mile zone along the border from which it was previously barred. Yugoslav units began to move into the zone last week.

In Debelde, a village on the Kosovo side about half a mile back from the border, a teenager named Faik, who says he had fled from the Macedonian side of the border, pointed to a forested ridge about a half mile away. He says that until recently, ethnic Albanians used horses to take food and weapons through the forest into Macedonia. "It's hard now to get food to the fighters," he says.

Until the border troubles began, the Americans had their hands full inside Kosovo. The American sector of the province still contains a large number of Serbs, who live under a continuing threat of violence. One of the biggest problems is the destruction of Serb houses, perhaps by ethnic Albanians who want to keep Serbs who have left Kosovo from ever returning.

The US recently refused a NATO request to send more troops to Kosovo. Army officials say they have plenty to seal off the border and to keep peace within the province. But a Western diplomat in Macedonia says, "They don't have the numbers that would allow them to do everything they would like to do."

Recently, NATO moved peacekeeping units from the British sector of Kosovo to help the Americans along the border. In the area of OP Bravo, between 100 and 150 soldiers keep watch on just nine miles of border, making it one of the better-watched segments. But sometime the terrain still defeats the Americans.

One night last week, a squad was out patrolling when a helicopter radioed that it had spotted people moving along a valley more than a mile away. The soldiers hurried to intercept them. They never found them. "You've got to be down there in the weeds and bushes," Lieutenant Grant says. "But it's hard to move around at night."

Almost all the people they stop turn out to be civilians. Last Wednesday, Sergeant Lindley says, soldiers spotted people in Mijak from the lookout on the hill. He led a squad down the hill at a jog to confront them. By the time the soldiers got there, everyone was gone but one old man. "It turned out it was just some people getting potatoes."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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