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NATO Moves Into Kosovo

June 12, 1999

BLACE, Macedonia (AP) _ The start of NATO’s entry into Kosovo started with a single general walking across the border to meet a Yugoslav military liaison officer. The agenda: final preparation for alliance vehicles to move.

Brig. Adrian Freer returned to say the meeting never occurred but he would go ahead with the mission as planned. Without further explanation, he got in his car and drove off.

Moments later, NATO Chinook helicopters carrying British paratroopers flew across the border into Kosovo, marking the start of the alliance’s peacekeeping move into the Yugoslav province.

A huge convoy of British and French military vehicles rolled across the border. Several U.S. Apache helicopters also were seen overhead across the border.

``This is what we have waited for from the moment the bombing started,″ Linda Gusia, 21, a refugee who fled the province in April, told a reporter. ``It is really exciting.″

The six helicopters were to land troops on high ground along the Kacanik gorge overlooking the main road north to the Kosovo capital Pristina, where Russian troops arrived hours earlier unexpectedly.

Freer, commander of the British 5th Airborne brigade, said the arrival earlier in the day of a Russian column in Kosovo was a matter of concern.

``One of the things people don’t want to see is some kind of partition,″ he said. ``But I am not going to speculate at this hour of the morning on where this will lead.″

Just minutes after the helicopters took off, a column of jeeps packed with more than 150 Gurkha troops began crossing the border into Kosovo at the Blace frontier post. Other units were advancing on foot as NATO undertook the biggest ground operation in its 50-year history.

The British said they expected to reach Pristina by nightfall.

At nearby Stenkovec, the British 4th Armored Brigade was waiting to receive the order to move with about 400 vehicles including Challenger battle tanks and Warrior fighting vehicles.

As the sun rose over the border region, the roar of generators and tank engines echoed through the hills. Military police using illuminated batons waved vehicles into position in the final moments of darkness.

``We are ready for anything and everything,″ said Regimental Sgt. Maj. Kenny Matheson.

``We’re going in to secure peace and make peace,″ Freer said as he prepared to depart. ``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 Europe.″

To the north, the French 20th Tank Regiment was on the move with the first NATO heavy armor to enter Kosovo. The 900-member Marine unit will go over a mountain to Gnjilane about six miles north of the border inside Kosovo.

The French said they expected to move slowly and arrive at Gnjilane about noon because of the possibility of land mines.

British Gurkha infantrymen _ Nepalese who serve in the British army _ marched alongside armored vehicles as they crossed the border at this station where hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanian refugees had fled in terror following the Serb crackdown launched after NATO began bombing Yugoslavia on March 24.

``Our task is peacekeeping,″ said Gurkha Lance Cpl. Sarad Gurung of the Royal Gurkha Rifles. ``We are happy to do it and we are ready.″

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