British Paratroopers Enter Kosovo
BLACE, Macedonia (AP) _ It began with the din of helicopters, as British paratroopers headed out to secure the high ground.
Then on a general’s signal at dawn, thousands of NATO troops with tanks and armored vehicles rolled into Kosovo today in the largest military operation in the alliance’s history.
Hundreds of Kosovo Albanian refugees, who fled into Macedonia at this crossing point, cheered and shouted ``NATO! NATO!″ as the convoy passed the Stenkovec camp.
``This is what we’ve been waiting for since the (NATO) bombing started,″ refugee Linda Gusia, 21, shouted over the whirr of rotor blades as Chinook and Puma helicopters flew overhead, signaling the start of Operation Joint Guardian. ``It is really exciting.″
U.S. Apache attack helicopters, transferred here from Albania, skirted the hilltops to protect the convoy from attack.
The massive NATO operation _ including U.S., British, French, German and Italian troops _ began hours after Russian forces moved unexpectedly into the Kosovo capital, Pristina, where local Serbs welcomed them as heroes sent to protect them from feared retribution by Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians.
The Russians traveled through the city and stopped before dawn in the village of Kosovo Polje, on Pristina’s western edge and near the airport where the British NATO commander, Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson, expects to establish his headquarters later today.
``I am sure diplomatically that will have caused some concern,″ British Brigadier Adrian Freer, commander of the 5th Airborne Brigade, told reporters. ``One of the things people don’t want to see is some kind of partition.″
Moments after the first of the helicopters disappeared over the rocky hills early today, Freer walked across the border to meet with a Yugoslav liaison officer for final coordination. Freer returned moments later and told reporters the liaison officer never appeared.
Freer then gave the order to begin the operation and rode across the frontier himself in the lead vehicle.
``We’re going in to secure peace and make peace,″ Freer said as he departed. ``I don’t see this as a victory or triumphalist approach. We’ve got to make sure we rebuild this country into a peaceful part of the world.″
Behind him, a column of jeeps packed with more than 150 Gurkhas _ elite Nepalese infantrymen who serve in the British army _ began crossing the border. Hundreds of other Gurkhas marched alongside the slow-moving convoy.
``Our task is peacekeeping,″ said Lance Cpl. Sarad Gurung of the Royal Gurkha Rifles. ``We are happy to do it, and we are ready.″
To the north, the 20th French tank regiment rolled over the hills toward Gnjilane, where the American force plans to set up its headquarters.
British Broadcasting Corp. TV correspondent Paul Woods, reporting from inside Kosovo, said British paratroopers reached their first objective above the Kacanik Gorge, six miles north of the border, where they were welcomed by exuberant Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas.
He said several buildings in the area had been set fire by Serb troops as they withdrew under terms of the international peace plan.
Although the trip between Blace and Pristina normally takes less than two hours, the convoy was not expected to reach the Kosovo capital until later today.