|U.S. Troops Brace for Confrontations With Albanians |
By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 18, 2001; Page A22
CAMP BONDSTEEL, Yugoslavia -- U.S. peacekeepers in Kosovo, watching warily as ethnic Albanian guerrillas launch new attacks just across the border in Macedonia and southern Yugoslavia, are bracing for possible confrontations in Kosovo with the guerrillas or their supporters.
Stepping up patrols on the border to block the flow of men and weapons from Kosovo to the insurgents, the peacekeepers risk becoming targets themselves if the guerrillas feel threatened.
On Friday, U.S. troops seized machine guns, rocket launchers and other weapons from a Volkswagen Golf car near the border.
NATO waged a 78-day bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999 to end a brutal crackdown by that country's Serb-dominated army against an Albanian insurrection in Kosovo. But U.S. Army peacekeeping troops here see the recent attacks as confirmation that the Albanians are now the problem.
NATO has been cooperating more and more closely with its former adversary in the war. Earlier in the week, the alliance allowed Yugoslav troops to reoccupy a 10-square-mile sector of a buffer zone just outside Kosovo, where Albanian guerrillas have been attacking Yugoslav police.
"As the [buffer zone] gets smaller and there's less room for them to maneuver, I think it'll get hotter," said Lt. Brandon Griffin, an 82nd Airborne Division officer who has led patrols near the zone.
U.S. military intelligence officials expect that if Yugoslavs reoccupy the zone sector by sector in the coming weeks, as is the plan, the Albanian fighters inside will be pushed back into Kosovo -- and into the U.S. peacekeeping sector.
Tensions are higher at the Macedonian border as well. On Friday, four German Leopard tanks crossed from Kosovo into Macedonia to protect German logistics troops who are stationed there to support the peacekeeping operation in Kosovo. Officials said this was not an intervention, only a beefing up of security for the Germans.
Almost two years into the peacekeeping mission, it's hard to find Americans in the field who feel much sympathy for the Albanians they came to rescue.
"I got used to thinking of the Serbs as the oppressors, because of Bosnia," said Capt. Christopher Glover, commander of a military police company deployed here from Fort Polk, La., and a veteran of that other U.S. peacekeeping mission in the Balkans. "But here we're really protecting the Serbs from the Albanians."
Serb civilians who remained in their homes when the Yugoslav army pulled out in 1999 are in constant danger from Albanians, who either want revenge or a Kosovo without Serbs.
U.S. troops are guarding isolated Serb enclaves, religious sites and homes. In some Albanian-dominated towns, the remaining Serbs get round-the-clock protection to deter grenade and bomb attacks. Of the approximately 70 locals put in orange suits and held behind concertina wire and chain-link fence at the jail that U.S. forces maintain inside their main camp, about 65 are ethnic Albanians.
Despite these efforts, Albanians manage regularly to terrorize Serbs. Serbian churches have been dynamited. Last month, a bomb was detonated under a bus filled with Serbs, killing seven.
Many Serbs say the peacekeepers are too concerned about taking casualties and should apply their full military muscle to establish order and confiscate weapons used by Albanians during the war against Yugoslavia.
"The Albanians just keep on pushing and pushing and pushing," Capt. Guenther Pearson, a company commander, said with frustration.
Lt. Judd Young added: "Tensions are rising as the attacks are becoming more and more blatant."
The irony is that the Serbs being protected don't particularly like their protectors. And the ethnic Albanians by and large remain friendly with the U.S. troops moving among them.
Riding through the ethnically Albanian town of Kacanik, Lt. John Waters said that the locals bring coffee and bread to his troops when they visit. "The Albanian town, they love us," summarized Spec. Jason Pasko, a paratrooper from Huntington, Ind. Added his friend, Sgt. Joshua Bailey, from Raymond, N.H., "We're like saviors."
By contrast, the only time they were in a Serb town, the two soldiers said, was to put down a riot and they had rocks thrown at them.
Riding through the beleaguered Serb town of Strpce, an isolated enclave near the Macedonian border, Capt. Glover said the populace shuns his troops. "Notice that we don't have all the 'Hey, hello.' " As he said this, he passed two teenage Serb boys. One stared at him, expressionless. The other ignored him..
"The people here are still anti-U.S., anti-NATO," said Young, standing inside a U.N. police station in Strpce that was attacked last month. "They feel we're an army of occupation."
Among the troops, this ambiguous situation seems sometimes to have a demoralizing effect. Staff Sgt. George Cyrus of Montgomery, Ala., invokes the civil rights movement. "I mean, you think about race in America, and history. You can't go on angry forever. Eventually you've got to get over it."
"I find it very frustrating," added Staff Sgt. Robert McCormick, a combat engineer from Niagara, Wis. "You go into a town and they all act nice and friendly, and the next day they have a riot. So I just want to go home."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company