NATO is reviewing an "awkward" decision to assign Russian peacekeeping troops to a Kosovo town where Dutch forces believe they have cornered some suspected Serbian war criminals, alliance officials said today.
Several thousand ethnic Albanian residents of Orahovac, in western Kosovo, gathered in the streets today to protest NATO's announcement that it would send newly arrived Russian troops to replace the Dutch. The ethnic Albanians say that at least two war crime suspects are among 3,000 Serbs battened down in an isolated neighborhood that has been guarded for weeks by Dutch troops and tanks. Dutch officers say their troops are protecting the Serbs from ethnic Albanian vigilantes and also preventing the suspected war criminals from slipping away.
"It's a sticky point; we're not denying that," said Canadian army Lt. Col. Louis Garneau, a NATO spokesman. "It's not impossible that the area [the Russians are assigned to patrol] will change."
About 200 Russian troops arrived in Kosovo on Tuesday, joining 700 already at the airport in Pristina, the Kosovo capital, following an agreement with NATO on their deployment. The Russian contingent will number an estimated 3,600 by the end of July, and NATO has said the Russians will be deployed alongside allied forces in three of the five NATO-controlled sectors in Kosovo.
At issue is whether the Russians will bring the same vigilance to their duties in Orahovac as the Dutch have demonstrated, especially in apprehending Serbs accused of atrocities against Kosovo's ethnic Albanian civilians. In the 78-day air war that ended with NATO occupying Kosovo last month, Russia sided openly with Serbia, its longtime ally. On Tuesday, Russian Maj. Gen. Anatoly Volchkov pledged that the Russian peacekeepers would assure "the security and safety of everyone, whatever their nationality."
NATO officials indicated that they may not be eager to see the proposition tested in Orahovac. "We all know that in the end the Russians are going to have to show that they're predictable and professional," said Garneau, adding that there is "flexibility" in the announced assignment of Russian forces. The final decision, he said, is likely to be determined by discussions between Russian commanders and NATO officials.
"If everybody's happy on the ground, there's a good chance it'll be approved at the international level," Garneau said.
Capt. Michael G. Bos, spokesman for the Dutch army, said the Dutch troops will do as ordered but are not looking forward to abandoning their efforts in Orahovac. "We are very grateful that the Russians are coming to help. . . . The more nationalities that come, the better.
"I [also] can't deny that we would be joyful, because the soldiers [there] have been working very hard, and we really don't know what the situation would look like if the Russian army were here. . . . I must stress again that it's still not definite."
CAPTION: Ethnic Albanians in Orahovac protest plan to replace Dutch with Russians.