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  • First Wave of Marines on Alert

    By Molly Moore
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Tuesday, June 15, 1999; Page A25

    POZARANJE, Yugoslavia, June 14 For the first U.S. Marines rumbling into southeastern Kosovo this morning, it was a too-close encounter: departing Yugoslav army armor nearly brushing against Marine armor, opposing troops eyeball to eyeball on a narrow country road.

    "All it takes is one individual," said a nervous Lt. Col. Bruce Gandy, the Marine commander on the scene.

    But as a Yugoslav armored personnel carrier passed the American convoy, its assault vehicles bristling with weaponry, it was the Marines who blinked in surprise.

    "Did you see that?" marveled Lance Cpl. Jason Brendt, a 25-year-old from Montana. "A giant stuffed Mickey Mouse in that Serb APC!"

    The first detachment of the 900 U.S. Marines, who have been assigned to one of the safest sectors in Kosovo, were taking no chances as they entered the Serbian province on Day 3 of NATO ground operations. Concerned that French NATO forces were still untangling exiting Yugoslav military troops and equipment in the region, the Marines were ordered to spend tonight in a wheat field near Pozaranje, a village in southeastern Kosovo about 10 miles from their intended destination.

    The Marines pulled into southeastern Kosovo in a high-alert, high-caution wartime stance that contrasted sharply with the demeanor of the British calvary troops who led the NATO peacekeeping contingent into Kosovo two days earlier. Where the British reveled in the outpouring of emotion by crowds of ethnic Albanians who greeted them with tears, chants and bouquets of fresh flowers, the Marines saw danger.

    "It was very distracting," said Staff Sgt. Vincent Lovitt, 40, of Quantico, Va. "We were supposed to be watching the buildings for snipers."

    Even the wheat field, set amid a rural setting that could have been a backdrop for a Grandma Moses painting, was suspect. A behemoth plow used for removing land mines spent the afternoon chewing vast swaths through the pastel green grass before the line of several dozen Marine vehicles was permitted to set up camp.

    When NATO divided Kosovo into sectors to be controlled by different countries, U.S. Marine and Army forces were alotted the eastern portion of the province around the town of Gnjilane, the region perhaps least affected in recent months by the ravages of war. While most villages remain deserted and looted, few houses have been burned or shelled, and little fighting occurred here.

    NATO military leaders hope to prevent the kind of looting and pillaging by departing Yugoslav forces that preceded the arrival of the first British NATO forces this weekend, Marine commanders said, by leaving no gap between the exit of Yugoslav troops and the entry of peacekeepers. But that has led to the unwieldy entanglement of arriving NATO troops and the departure of NATO-escorted Yugoslav forces, making U.S. commanders perhaps the most security conscious of the forces all the more cautious.

    But the Serbian forces leaving the region escorted by French troops assigned to clear out the region before the Americans moved in offered no obvious resistance today. In fact, as they passed the incoming Marines, "they just smiled and waved," said Lance Cpl. Erik Casteneda, 20, of Hoffman Estates, Ill., who watched them from atop his armored vehicle.

    The Marines moving into this area bring a perspective to the job that some of the other peacekeeping contingents don't share: While the Marines may be assigned to one of the least contentious areas of the country, their commanders say they also come with a unique perspective. For more than a month, they've been guarding a U.S.-financed refugee camp in southern Albania and were pulled off that duty to assume new tasks in Kosovo.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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