NATO troops rolled into Kosovo near dawn today to begin the allied occupation of the shattered province, hours after a convoy of Russian military vehicles stunned Western leaders and apparently even officials in Moscow by arriving here first.
Led by U.S. Apache and British Chinook helicopters, a huge convoy of British military vehicles crossed the border at Blace, Macedonia, at 5:10 a.m. (11:10 p.m. Friday EDT). The troops were the vanguard of what is expected to be a 50,000-strong international peacekeeping force that will take control of Kosovo from departing Yugoslav army and Serbian police forces.
The NATO force entered the province about four hours after a Russian convoy received a rapturous welcome in Pristina from throngs of cheering Serbs. The arrival of the Russian forces caught NATO off-guard, and contradicted assurances from Moscow earlier in the day that its troops would not move into Kosovo without NATO's agreement.
Deepening confusion about the Russian deployment, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov suggested on CNN that the troops' arrival in Pristina had been a mistake, and announced that the force had been ordered to leave the province immediately. He described the move as unfortunate and said the reasons for it were being investigated.
U.S. officials said that the Russian move would not jeopardize the implementation of a settlement that ended 78 days of NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and requires the withdrawal from Kosovo of all Serbian forces. Administration officials recovered from their initial surprise to say they were reassured by Ivanov's statement that the troops would soon withdraw.
But by early today it was unclear when the Russian troops would leave. They were reportedly encamped on the outskirts of Pristina near the city's airport, which is designated by NATO planners as the alliance's headquarters in Kosovo.
The first NATO troops across the border were members of Britain's elite Gurkha rifle regiment. Among the first objectives for the allied forces was to secure the highlands overlooking the road between the Macedonian border and Pristina to allow safe passage for alliance tanks, trucks and armored vehicles.
The Russian troop movement aroused great concern in Washington and at NATO headquarters starting early Friday, when the convoy carrying several hundred soldiers crossed the border into Yugoslavia from neighboring Bosnia, where the soldiers are on peacekeeping duty. About 50 military vehicles, flying the Russian flag and many freshly painted with the block letters of KFOR -- the insignia of the Kosovo peacekeeping force -- wound their way through midday traffic in Belgrade and headed south toward Kosovo.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, learning of the movements while visiting Macedonia, called Ivanov in Moscow for an explanation. Ivanov said the troops would not move into the province until negotiations over Russia's role in the peacekeeping mission are successfully concluded. Just hours later, however, around 1:30 a.m., (7:30 p.m. EDT), the troops arrived in Pristina.
A senior U.S. official in Washington said Friday evening there was a possibility of a miscommunication or dispute between the Russian military and government. Earlier in the day, Ivanov had publicly expressed frustration over comments from a senior Russian general suggesting Russia should reach a unilateral agreement with Yugoslavia for a Russian peacekeeping sector in Kosovo. NATO has already organized the province into five sectors, each led by an allied country.
Serb residents of Pristina, a tense and half-deserted city, waited in the streets outside the Grand Hotel for hours for the anticipated Russian arrival. When the green vehicles pulled into the city, bursts of gunfire echoed though the streets and red tracer bullets lit up the sky.
The crowd -- which was devoid of ethnic Albanians -- shouted "Russia, Russia!" and "Serbia, Serbia!" Boys mounted the trucks waving red, blue and white Serb flags. The Russian troops smiled and waved.
Serbs regard Russians as Slavic kin who share the same Orthodox Christian religion. Perhaps more important, the Russian government opposed NATO's 78-day air campaign against Yugoslavia.
"They supported us in this war, even if in reality they are not in a condition to do anything. So this, at least, is something," said Nicola Markovic, a waiter.
Yugoslav officials who traveled from Belgrade to greet the Russians were careful not to couch the Russian arrival here as a slap at NATO. Goran Matic, a minister without portfolio in the Serb-led Yugoslav government and an associate of President Slobodan Milosevic, said the Russian troops will help soothe the nerves of Kosovo's Serbs, many of whom have been evacuating the province in advance of the NATO forces' arrival.
"We need Serbs to stay in Kosovo," Matic said during an interview on the sidelines of this morning's celebration. "This is a way of giving them confidence that the U.N. mission is meant to do them good.
"We are not anti-American," Matic went on, pointing to a youth in the crowd wearing a Chicago Bulls T-shirt. "NATO will be welcomed here if it does its job."
Even so, the Russian move underscored the deep divisions between NATO and Russia despite this week's agreement that ended NATO airstrikes and paved the way for deployment of the international peacekeeping force. Despite protracted negotiations -- which continued in Moscow Friday night -- Russia and the West have failed to reach an agreement that would satisfy NATO's demands that the peacekeeping mission be under allied command and Moscow's refusal to have Russian soldiers answer to NATO officers.
After learning of the Russian troop movement during the day Friday, NATO military commanders prepared to quickly move allied troops based in Macedonia to Pristina out of concern the Russians would beat them to the Kosovo capital. The alert was later canceled after the Russians gave assurances the troops would not cross into Kosovo.
As of Friday, 19,300 NATO soldiers had assembled inside Macedonia while another 7,300 were on the ground in Albania.
The first NATO troops were originally expected to move in Friday afternoon, but alliance diplomats and British military officers in Macedonia said a decision was made Thursday to delay the deployment until this morning largely for political reasons. They cited a strong desire by the Clinton administration to include U.S. Marines in the first allied units deployed inside the Serbian province.
The last of 2,200 Marines based on ships off Greece moved ashore Friday evening and were expected to reach their camp near the airport in Skopje, Macedonia, late Friday night or early this morning. The Marines were delayed from disembarking earlier this week because of Greek opposition to moving U.S. troops through their country during the campaign for Sunday's elections for the European Parliament.
"The Americans think that since they carried the ball during the air campaign they deserve to be among the first units into Kosovo," said a senior European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. The diplomat said Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson, the British commander of the peacekeeping force, "is really upset that such political considerations are taking precedence over military needs."
In Washington, the Pentagon said instead that Jackson had made the decision to delay the peacekeepers' entry. "I think he wants to make sure that we don't lose any of the troops unnecessarily, get them hurt for any reason," Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Wald told a news conference.
The Russian convoy of armored vehicles and trucks moved out of the northern Bosnian town of Ugljevik -- where they are part of a 1,300-member Russian contingent with the NATO-led Bosnian stabilization force -- and crossed the border into Yugoslavia 15 miles away. According to one account, the convoy was led by a Yugoslav government car as it made its way through Belgrade.
The Russian troop movement created a rare giddiness among Serbs in Pristina. For the first time since NATO airstrikes began on March 24, street lights were left on as a crowd of about 2,000 Serbs gathered in front of the Grand Hotel to await the Russians' arrival. They chatted amiably and cheered when someone burned an American flag. Roman candles were lit and zoomed over a nearby square.
"Russia can protect us in some way," said Radovan Bojic, a vegetable salesman.
A youth next to him objected. "They won't help, but at least we get a chance to spend an evening outside. I couldn't stand the apartment anymore," the youth said.
Moscow has indicated it was ready to send as many as 10,000 troops to Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the dominant republic in the Yugoslav federation.
Concerned about the Russian troop movement, officials at the White House tried unsuccessfully Friday morning to persuade Jackson to move NATO troops into Kosovo immediately. They suggested that those U.S. Marines who already had arrived in Skopje could be sent in before the British troops that were supposed to be the first ones in.
Jackson declined, and one NATO official said Friday it would likely be several days until the Marines go into Kosovo. "The plan was to go in tomorrow [Saturday]. We decided we would stay with the plan," said one NATO official.
Albright called Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov to seek an explanation for the troop movements. Speaking to reporters afterward, Albright said Ivanov "was pretty categorical in saying they would not go into Kosovo unilaterally." She said the Russians were "trying to fit into the overall picture."
Later, while flying back to Washington Friday night, Albright said after the arrival of the Russian convoy in Pristina that Russian military officials would be dispatched to Macedonia to meet with Jackson.
At the White House, officials downplayed the gravity of the episode. "As Foreign Minister Ivanov has said, it was an unfortunate mistake and the Russian troops will be withdrawn immediately," spokesman Joe Lockhart said.
NATO military authorities have divided the Kosovo map into five sectors that would be controlled by allied forces from Britain, France, Italy, Germany and the United States. They say that a unified NATO command with a central NATO headquarters are vital to preserve cohesion among the 50,000 peacekeepers from as many as 30 nations who are expected to serve in Kosovo.
Russia insists on having its own sector, preferably in the north where Serb religious shrines and much of the province's Serb inhabitants are located. But NATO commanders fear that a Russian sector would quickly lead to the de facto partition of Kosovo, reminiscent of the Cold War division of Germany.
Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who was expected in Brussels to brief NATO ambassadors after two days of discussion with Russian leaders about the command problem, reversed course in midair and flew back to Moscow after learning about the Russian troops entering Yugoslavia. Talbott resumed talks Friday night with senior Russian officials in the hope of reaching a resolution of the command problem before it evolves into a serious threat to the peacekeeping operation.
Preparations for Operation Joint Guardian, as the KFOR operation is being called, accelerated Friday after allied reconnaissance flights confirmed that more than 4,000 Yugoslav forces have departed Kosovo since Thursday. The pullout began after Belgrade's military authorities signed an agreement promising to withdraw all of about 40,000 soldiers, police and paramilitary police out of Kosovo within 11 days.
Williams reported from Pristina and Drozdiak from Brussels. Staff writers Steven Mufson in Skopje, Macedonia, and Bradley Graham and Dana Priest in Washington contributed to this report.
A Russian Move
Russian troops, ready to assert a role in the Kosovo peacekeeping operation, drove from Bosnia to Pristina, the province's capital, before NATO troops could move into the battered province. More than 26,000 NATO troops were waiting in Macedonia and Albania to enter Kosovo as Yugoslav forces and many Serbian civilians, fearing retribution, continued to leave the province.
CAPTION: Joyful Kosovo Serbs wave the Serbian flag from atop an armored vehicle in Pristina as they celebrate the arrival of Russian troops.
CAPTION: Russian tank near Belgrade.