Twenty-four days after the first contingent of Russian troops bolted into Kosovo ahead of NATO forces, a NATO-approved group of reinforcements arrived here in the province to join the allied peacekeeping mission.
Maj. Gen. Anatoly Volchkov, commander of Russian forces at Pristina's Slatina airport, dismissed concerns that his troops might favor Kosovo's Serbian minority, which has suffered reprisals from the province's ethnic Albanians--hundreds of thousands of whom were driven from their homes or otherwise persecuted by Serb-led Yugoslav forces during the war.
"I don't think there's any basis" for such concerns, Volchkov told reporters today. "The main job . . . of our contingent is the security and safety of everyone, whatever their nationality." Russia, a centuries-old patron of the Serbs, was the strongest advocate of the Serb-led Belgrade government during the 78-day NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia.
NATO officials have said the presence of the Russians might reassure Kosovo's remaining Serbian residents, whom the alliance has been urging to stay. At least 70,000 of Kosovo's 200,000 Serbs have left the province since the war ended last month. The 200 Russian troops who flew here today joined 700 already stationed at the airport, which Russian forces occupied June 12 after dashing into Kosovo from neighboring Bosnia hours ahead of the first NATO forces.
The entire Russian force of 3,600 troops is expected in Kosovo by the end of July, joining a NATO-led mission that is expected to grow to 57,000 from the 29,000 troops currently in the province.
Today's Russian deployment was delayed by protracted negotiations between NATO and Kremlin officials and, finally, by a bit of NATO brinkmanship over Russia's role in Kosovo. Russian participation in the peacekeeping force was a condition of the agreement under which Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic agreed to withdraw government security forces from Kosovo. But Russia wanted a command structure independent of NATO and control of its own sector in the province. NATO officials agreed only to the first condition, citing a parallel in Bosnia, where Russian troops operate alongside NATO peacekeepers.
NATO has divided Kosovo into five zones, supervised by the United States, Britain, France, Italy and Germany. The issue of where the Russian troops would deploy remained unresolved, and when Moscow prepared to send troops to Kosovo last week, NATO persuaded Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary to deny Russia permission to fly the troops through their airspace. The dispute was resolved Monday, and NATO announced today that the Russians will be deployed in the towns of Orahovac and Malisevo, in central Kosovo, which is controlled by German forces; Kosovska Kamenica, in the American sector; and Lausa, in the French sector.
Meanwhile, protests against the Milosevic government continued in Serbia. In the southern town of Leskovac a crowd gathered outside the police station to demand the release of TV journalist Ivan Novkovic, who was arrested for airing a tape that called for the resignation of a local pro-Milosevic leader.
And in the central town of Uzice, opposition leader Zoran Djindjic made his first public appearance since he fled the country, telling a crowd of several thousand Serbs that they should be prepared to take to the streets and start working to force Milosevic to resign.
Staff writer William Booth in Leskovac contributed to this report.