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Kosovars Say Russia Forces Unwelcome

July 7, 1999

MALISEVO, Yugoslavia (AP) _ The men hanging around the devastated town market wave happily when NATO tanks roll by, but they won’t lift a hand when Russian troops come down their streets.

Malisevo is one of four towns in Kosovo to be put to a potentially inflammatory test in coming weeks when Russian peacekeepers begin fanning out into heavily ethnic Albanian areas, where residents see them as synonymous with the hated Serbs.

``They have Kalashnikovs, the same as the Serbian police. When we look at them, we see Serbs,″ vegetable merchant Imer Hoti said Wednesday.

For these ethnic Albanians, seeing Serbs means a reminder of horror, and Malisevo has seen much of that already. The town is in the region where the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army’s fight began, and over the past two years Malisevo was blasted and burned with special ferocity.

Some residents believe widely circulated but unsubstantiated rumors that Russians took part in the killings and destruction around Malisevo.

The KLA has alleged that Russian mercenaries took part in wartime Serb atrocities. The Russian Defense Ministry said last month that it had no information about any Russian volunteers having fought in Kosovo.

After fighting in the nearby village of Lladrovc, ``we found seven or eight bodies of Russians,″ claimed Besim Zogaj.

``Why in God’s name are the Russians here now?″ said Hoti, whose ramshackle stand sits across the road from the vast pile of twisted steel bars and scorched concrete that used to be the town market.

Until this week, Russian forces had stayed at the airport of the capital, Pristina, or at a nearby logistics base as diplomats argued over how they would fit in to the NATO-led peacekeeping mission. Suspicions of Russia’s intentions in Kosovo date to the early hours of the mission, when Russian troops unexpectedly showed up at the airport hours ahead of British forces that led NATO’s move into the province.

But the issues were resolved this week _ after NATO forced Russia’s hand by having Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria deny air routes to Russia _ and now the Russian army is preparing to head into the thick of Kosovo’s tensions.

Although the Russians aren’t expected to deploy into the four towns for another two weeks, on Wednesday they sent out small reconnaissance missions to look for suitable buildings for their offices and housing.

They did it delicately in Malisevo. Many people at the market didn’t even notice the two cars of Russians come through down, and those who did played it cool.

``I didn’t wave. I did nothing,″ Hoti said angrily.

``If they come, they will be accepted. But how can we be big-hearted to them?″ said Sali Mazreku, who also believes the rumors about Russians. ``In every offensive, Russians were with the Serbs. I heard them once, talking Russian.″

Mazreku was sitting in what was once the local office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe _ which before the NATO bombings oversaw cease-fire monitors in Kosovo. Now its front wall is blasted off, leaving the rooms exposed like a wrecked dollhouse.

NATO officials have expressed hopes the Russian presence will reassure Serbs, who have been targeted by ethnic Albanian retaliation and are fleeing from the province. Diplomats, taking a wider view, say Moscow’s participation is a sign of its integration into the world community.

Ibrahim Mazreku, Sali’s father, didn’t see it that way, but was as resigned to the Russians as he was he was angry. ``It is God’s will _ and NATO’s,″ he said.

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