Russian troops stopped and held the military commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army for about two hours today in an incident that heightened ethnic Albanian suspicions about the Russian presence in Kosovo.
Hashim Thaqi, the KLA's political leader, said the incident was a "premeditated, political act" and that it "verifies our doubts about the ability of Russian troops to bring stability to Kosovo."
However, a Russian officer defended his troops, saying they were simply following the terms of the demilitarization agreement that NATO-led peacekeeping force reached with the rebel group.
A spokesman for the peacekeepers, Maj. Roland Lavoie, called it "a minor incident."
Gen. Agim Ceku, the KLA's military leader, was traveling in the village of Kijevo, west of Pristina, when he was stopped at a Russian checkpoint. Ceku was in uniform, armed and accompanied by armed bodyguards.
Under the 90-day demilitarization agreement, KLA commanders are still allowed to carry side arms and wear uniforms, but they must carry an identification card issued by the peacekeeping force. When Ceku was unable to produce the card, Lavoie said, Russians held him and his security detail until his identity was established. Lavoie pointed out that every peacekeeping soldier could not be expected to recognize every KLA commander.
"According to the agreement, every man who has a gun and hasn't permission must be stopped and disarmed," said Russian Maj. Konstantin Konovalko.
Konovalko added, "I think this is all a misunderstanding. It was just a matter of checking."
The KLA disputed the Russian account, saying Ceku had his identification papers and the Russians attempted to take Ceku to a nearby barracks, but he refused to go.
Russia is a historic ally of Serbia and Russian mercenaries reportedly fought alongside Serb-led Yugoslav forces during a campaign of terror against Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanian population this spring. Ethnic Albanians have charged that Russians participated in atrocities in Kosovo, and, in sharp contrast to their welcome of Western peacekeepers, they have been hostile to the Russians.
There are now 2,000 Russian troops in Kosovo, guarding Pristina airport and patrolling in the American-, British- and German-controlled sectors of Kosovo. Russian forces, particularly in the American and British sectors in eastern and central Kosovo, are stationed in areas with concentrations of Serbs, who have greeted the Russians warmly.
In an interview today, Brig. Gen. John Craddock, the commander of U.S. forces in the American sector, said the Russians have been performing with increasing effectiveness, breaking up illegal checkpoints and making arrests where appropriate.
"The [ethnic] Albanian community has been very concerned," he said. "It's a learning process."