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Russia Delays Peacekeepers’ Airlift

July 4, 1999

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Russia postponed its planned airlift of peackeepers to Kosovo on Sunday after NATO officials said the alliance would block the flights until disagreements over Russia’s role in the peacekeeping force are resolved.

Two IL-76 military cargo planes that were scheduled to airlift about 100 Russian paratroopers to Kosovo on Sunday were put on indefinite standby because several countries would not grant Moscow permission to use their airspace, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

Another four IL-76 aircraft were to fly to Kosovo on Monday and Tuesday, but those flights also appear to be on hold.

Russia needs permission from several east European countries to fly the peacekeepers over their territory. NATO member Hungary as well as Romania and Bulgaria, both of which want to join the alliance, have rejected the requests.

According to NATO officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, Russia wants to send some of its troops into sectors of Kosovo controlled by other NATO countries and to water down NATO’s command of Russian forces _ departures from an agreement reached in lengthy negotiations last month in Helsinki, Finland.

The Russian presence is expected to help calm Serb fears about their safety following reprisal attacks by ethnic Albanians since Serb-led Yugoslav forces left the province last month under the international peace agreement.

But ethnic Albanians distrust the Russians because of their historic cultural and political ties with their fellow Slav Serbs.

Russia already has about 700 paratroopers and technicians at the Slatina Airport near Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. Others are heading to the province by train and ship, but are not expected to begin arriving until mid-July. The Russian contingent is expected to reach 3,600 when deployment is completed.

About half of a planned 55,000 peacekeepers from NATO countries are now in Kosovo.

In Pristina, relations between ethnic Albanians and NATO were strained following the shooting deaths Saturday of two ethnic Albanians who had joined tens of thousands of revelers celebrating the ninth anniversary of a unilateral declaration of independence for Kosovo.

The victims were driving toward a building where eight British soldiers were shielding a group of Serbs who had asked for protection

The ethnic Albanians were firing automatic weapons and shouting slogans, a British statement said.

``Three soldiers, believing their lives to be in danger, fired aimed shots at the vehicle,″ the Ministry of Defense in London said.

One of the occupants died at the scene, and another died later at a hospital.

At Pristina’s hospital, one of the wounded, 17-year-old Isak Berisha, claimed no one in the car was armed and no warning was given before British troops began shooting.

``I really want to know why they shot at us,″ said Berisha, who suffered gunshot wounds in his arm, torso and leg.

A NATO spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. John Howells, insisted the British soldiers reacted to a clear threat.

``The great myth is that last night was just a happy celebration,″ Howells said. ``It wasn’t. There were Serb homes that were shot at. They were intimidated and beaten up by Kosovo Albanians.″

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