Moscow’s KFOR contingent found itself at the center of a rising tide of violence in Kosovo yesterday as Russian soldiers shot dead three Serbs who had attacked a carload of ethnic Albanians. The incident, the bloodiest experienced yet by the international peacekeeping force in Kosovo, came as Moscow leveled fresh criticisms at NATO over its conduct of the peacekeeping effort. The shootings also came amid a series of high-level contacts between Russian and both Yugoslav and Serb government officials which underscored Moscow’s apparent determination to maintain close ties to authorities in Belgrade. The weekend’s events, coming as the West increases pressure on the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) to meet a September 19 disarmament deadline, suggested that NATO’s already difficult task in Kosovo could be further complicated by enduring differences with Moscow.
Yesterday’s shooting incident occurred just outside the town of Ranilug–within a Russian zone of responsibility–in the American sector in southeastern Kosovo. Preliminary reports suggested that the three Serbs, who were armed, had attacked five unarmed Albanians traveling in a car just north of Ranilug. The Serb gunmen reportedly opened fire, killing one of the car’s occupants and seriously wounding another. Russian troops from the Thirteenth Tactical Group, posted nearby, rushed to the scene and were fired on by the Serb gunmen. The Russians returned fire, killing all three of them.
KFOR officials said yesterday that the incident would be investigated further, but went out of their way to make it clear that the Russian troops had acted in accordance with KFOR’s rules of engagement in Kosovo. The defense of the Russian action came amid what has generally been praise from NATO commanders over the professional and even-handed performance of Russian soldiers in Kosovo. In a visit to Kosovo yesterday, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana also applauded the Russian troops, suggesting that their willingness to fire on ethnic Serbs had proved that “the Russian troops behave according to the obligation that all KFOR troops have.” The incident also provided a Russian commander in Kosovo, Colonel Mikhail Kovtunenko, the opportunity to reiterate Moscow’s contention that its troops are in Kosovo to fight “against criminals–no matter what their nationality” (Reuters, AP, Russian agencies, September 6).
Moscow’s uncritical support for Belgrade throughout its bloody crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo earlier this year, together with Russia’s more general claim of cultural kinship with Serbia, have led many to assume that Russia’s KFOR contingent would favor Kosovo’s ethnic Serb population. It will be interesting, therefore, to see how the respective sides react to yesterday’s shooting incident. Government authorities in Belgrade, who have welcomed the Russian presence in Kosovo, offered no immediate comment. Nor, apparently, did leaders of the ethnic Albanian community. Kosovar Albanians have been protesting the Russian military presence in Kosovo, and a blockade carried out by local Albanian citizens–and supported by the KLA–has kept Russian troops out of the city of Orahovac for some two weeks now. NATO leaders will likely try to use yesterday’s incident in negotiations aimed at bringing that blockade to an end.
MOSCOW WANTS KLA DISBANDED, HOSTS VISIT BY SERBIAN MINISTER.