U.S. soldiers try to halt the spread of violence from Kosovo

Friday, February 23rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MUCIBABA, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Often, the rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire cuts through the air, mixed with the thump of mortar rounds exploding just a few hundred yards away from where a U.S. Army platoon does its bit for peace in the Balkans.

The noise breaks up the monotony of peacekeeping duty on the edge of the most dangerous spot in the region _ the volatile no man's land sandwiched between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia, Yugoslavia's larger republic.

Ethnic Albanian rebels in the three-mile-wide zone that includes the Presevo Valley are fighting to unite it with the rest of Kosovo and eventually tear all of Kosovo from Serbia. The insurgency followed NATO's 78-day air war that forced former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to stop his crackdown on ethnic Albanians.

About 5,000 U.S. troops are part of the 45,000-strong peacekeeping force, but U.S. commanders will not specify how many of those soldiers are deployed at the boundary. Peacekeepers there are trying to keep ethnic Albanian militants from Kosovo from infiltrating the buffer zone.

The gunfire and explosions break up the routine of patrol days spent roaming through the countryside or checkpoint duty, 18-hour shifts of watching cars come and go and monitoring traffic traveling between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia.

Pfc. Justin Tatro, 20, of St. Joseph, Mo., said he's pretty typical in preferring the long hikes through overgrown forest land, where the landmarks are bullet-scarred farmhouses and fire-licked barns.

``Patrol day is the best day. It's like a walk in the park,'' he joked.

The unrest in Presevo Valley is disturbingly similar to the violence that led to NATO's involvement in Kosovo the first place.

In November, rebels swept through the zone, killing four police officers and seizing Serb police positions. On Sunday, an explosion believed to have been caused by antitank mines killed three Serb police officers.

Alarmed by the surge of rebel activity, diplomats and NATO commanders last year began observing the so-called ``Ground Safety Zone'' more closely.

Peacekeepers record mortar blasts and machine-gun bursts. They search for signs of movement, such as footprints and tractor tracks. They monitor the boundary from the air and have sensors in the woods.

1st Lt. Tony Leibert and his troops are trying to prevent men and supplies from moving into the buffer zone. On their patrols, they police terrain that is replete with secret paths, nooks and crannies.

People caught trying to help the rebels are handed over to U.S. jailers at Camp Bondsteel. In custody now are 85 suspected members of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac.

NATO-led peacekeepers fear that ethnic Albanians will race to the boundary to help their ethnic kin in the event of war with the Serbs. Such a scenario would leave peacekeepers in the middle _ trapped between the two armed ethnic Albanian groups.

There is risk even without the insurgency. Members of the NATO-led force often have been caught in the middle of riots and other violence unleashed by continued ethnic hatred.

With tensions rising, the possible perils to the Americans from the zone have increased. But the soldiers let the diplomats talk about those things.

``We don't see the big picture,'' Leibert said. ``We see what's going on here in Mucibaba,'' a smattering of 150 houses on steep brown hills connected by a warren of interconnecting foot paths and muddy roads more suited to horse carts than tanks.

To make sure the men find their way around, Leibert, from Houston, has created a second Lone Star State, giving roads names like Amarillo and Dallas, and naming the notable peaks El Paso and Ft. Worth.

Beyond Kosovo's little Texas, there is more to hear than to see: mortar fire and machine guns bursting along the boundary separating Kosovo from the rest of Serbia.

``Please don't tell my mother everything,'' Sgt. Harvey Glass, 26, of Atlanta, urged a reporter asking about the dangers. ``She'll worry.''