Sitting Ducks

7 minute read

One morning last month, two young Russian soldiers were chatting on a hillside in eastern Kosovo, on the border with Serbia, when one of them noticed unusual movements just across a narrow wooded valley. Through his high-powered scope, he spotted a handful of men in sweatsuits and jeans moving briskly around an armored vehicle mounted with a heavy machine gun. Peacekeepers daily see Albanian rebels training across the border, but this group “looked like they were preparing something,” recalled Sergeant Sergey Bogoyavlensky, 28, last week at the Russian base a few kilometers away.

Bogoyavlensky had just signaled his commander when the firing started. “It was a wall of sound, mortars, rifle fire. I was lying face down and the bullets were landing all around. It was very clear they were shooting at us.” Ducking into his Russian-made armored personnel carrier to radio for air support, he saw the wheel he had been sheltering behind explode when struck by a bullet. His friend and bunk-mate, Mikhail Shuitsev, 22, a farm boy from central Russia, was not so lucky. Trying to cover the retreat of his commander as the rebels advanced down the hillside, Shuitsev was hit in the head by sniper fire. “What is happening? What for?” were his last words. Bogoyavlensky, who had served in Bosnia and Croatia, said simply: “I didn’t expect this. He was like a brother to me.”

Shuitsev was the first peacekeeper to die as the result of a direct attack since some 40,000 troops from over 30 countries rolled into Kosovo after the NATO bombing almost two years ago. His death marks what the Russian commander in Kosovo called a “planned preliminary provocation”—an attempt by armed Albanian extremists operating in Serbia’s Presovo Valley to draw international peacekeepers into their guerrilla war against Serb forces. In a spartan office overlooking the airfield in the capital, Pristina, Major General Vladimir Kazantsev said such attacks would occur again—and soon—as Serbian forces attempt to flush remaining extremists out of Serb territory. Twice in the past two weeks, as if to confirm that prediction, joint Russian and American patrols in the same area came under fire in incidents closely resembling the Shuitsev attack, though this time the peacekeepers escaped injury.

Conflicts in southern Serbia and—more alarmingly now—in neighboring Macedonia are threatening to shift the delicate balance in Kosovo between peacekeeper and combatant. For the first time since NATO intervened, Western objectives are coming into direct conflict with those of a small band of extremists intent on pursuing political goals through violent means. The risk of confrontation is growing.

The danger is on two fronts. On the province’s southeastern border with Macedonia—in response to the two-month-old insurgency in which ethnic Albanian extremists are battling government troops—American, Russian, British and other forces have stepped up foot patrols, checkpoints and aerial surveillance in an attempt to cut off rebel supply lines. In the process they are restricting movement by Albanians across a border that to many does not exist. The increased presence has in itself raised the risk of accident: three British soldiers were killed in two separate incidents last month when a Puma helicopter crashed near the border and when an armored vehicle struck an antitank mine. While rebels based in Macedonia have yet to directly target peacekeepers, the current government offensive, designed to drive insurgents back into Kosovo, puts Western peacekeepers in the line of retreat.

Just to the northeast, the situation is equally precarious. For the past two months the Yugoslav army has been slowly occupying the so-called Ground Safety Zone, a 5-km-wide no-go area created in the aftermath of the Kosovo bombing that had been a safe haven for Albanian extremists. This week NATO’s governing council is expected to make a decision on permitting Serbs to take over the final section of the zone, known as Sector B, where the bulk of extremists are known to be based. Shuitsev’s death and the shootings on joint U.S.-Russian patrols occurred while soldiers were attempting to mark the southern perimeter of this zone to prepare for the Serbs’ arrival. Russian General Kasantsev says he expects trouble. A veteran of wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, he said brusquely that “of course” he had taken measures to protect his men but that the threats are many. Asked for details he said: “Are you writing a book?”

It’s no coincidence that Russians are among the first to be singled out. Widely viewed by local Albanians as pro-Serb because of their historical ties with Belgrade, the 3,200-strong contingent is linked in Albanian minds with a foreign policy that has consistently echoed the Serb line. Since the NATO bombing, which the Russians vehemently opposed, Moscow has been the first to criticize the alliance and the U.N. administration for being soft on Albanians. Most recently, Time has learned it briefly blocked funding for Kosovo-wide elections, which Albanians want as soon as possible as a critical first step toward independence. “Albanians, to be honest, hate Russian soldiers,” said a moderate newspaper editor in Pristina. “Americans are still considered liberators, but it is easier to pick up a gun against a Russian.”

At Russia’s 13th Tactical Group headquarters in an abandoned factory 10 km from the Serbian border, a military map covering one wall is crisscrossed with notations of rebel troop strength, arms and supply routes. In place of the usual feelgood peacekeeping notes of food deliveries and clinic construction are mugshots of rebel chieftains and a grainy photo of a ragtag group carrying a recoilless rifle. Tiny red skulls-and-crossbones mark the spots where Shuitsev and the British soldiers lost their lives. Surveying the map, Lieut. Colonel Leonid Kozan said that unlike the bloody conflict in Chechnya, where Russian soldiers are expected to die daily, Kosovo was supposed to be a peacekeeping operation. “Every country wants its men to return home safely,” he said.

The recently appointed top commander in Kosovo, Norwegian Lieut. General Thorstein Skiaker, acknowledged in an interview that his troops may face a growing threat, but mainly, he contended, from organized gangs and smugglers “whose goal is not a safe and secure environment.” He said politically astute Albanians recognize that “we are here for their benefit.” Still, he admitted, bandits and freedom fighters in the region are not always mutually exclusive. To avoid extremists targeting one contingent, KFOR is at pains to present a united front. In eastern Kosovo, Russian and American soldiers stand shoulder to shoulder at checkpoints and Americans have now joined Russian patrols in the dangerous job of marking the border. “It’s important that Albanians see these orders are coming from KFOR and not us alone,” Lieut. Saknov Vitaly, 25, said while Americans halted cars nearby at a major checkpoint on the edge of the buffer zone.

That message is still, by and large, getting through. But the goodwill enjoyed by KFOR among most Albanians depends on steady progress toward political independence and “equal rights.” Time has already run out in Macedonia and Serbia. The test now will be whether armed rebels retreating from those government offensives will try to preserve themselves by extending their fight to Kosovo. As Sergeant Shuitsev discovered too late, they are not called extremists for nothing.

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