Incident at Pristina airport
A confrontation between Russian forces and NATO forces over the Pristina International Airport occurred on 12 June 1999, in the aftermath of the Kosovo War. Russian troops occupied the airport ahead of a NATO deployment, resulting in a tense stand-off, which was resolved peacefully.
|Incident at Pristina airport|
|Part of the aftermath of the Kosovo War|
Pristina airport terminal in 2013
|Commanders and leaders|
Boris Yeltsin |
Volkodar vel "Kain"
Wesley Clark |
|206 soldiers and officers Russian Airborne Forces, 15 BTR, 35 vehicles||tank column supported by infantry and combat helicopters|
|Casualties and losses|
The Kosovo War ended on 11 June 1999, and a joint NATO-Russian peacekeeping force was to be installed in Kosovo. Russia had expected to receive a peacekeeping sector independent of NATO, and were angered when this was refused. There was concern that a separate Russian sector might lead to a partition of Kosovo between a Serb-controlled north and Albanian south.
The Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) deployed to Skopje in the Republic of Macedonia during early March 1999. The purpose was to provide unified NATO command for several national contingents including a United States battalion which had been in Macedonia for some years, together with newly arrived British, German, French and Italian battalions. The force was known as Kosovo Force (KFOR). The commander of KFOR was British lieutenant general Mike Jackson, with 3-star rank. His superior officer was US Admiral James O. Ellis, NATO commander for southern Europe, based in Naples. Ellis reported to Wesley Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, although in practice Clark often bypassed Ellis to communicate directly with Jackson.
Early on 11 June 1999, a column of about 30 Russian armoured vehicles carrying 250 Russian troops, who were part of the international peacekeeping force in Bosnia, moved into Serbia. At 10:30 a.m. this was confirmed by SHAPE and by pictures from CNN which showed that the Russians had hastily painted "KFOR" in white letters on their vehicles where they had previously been "SFOR". It was assumed that the column was heading for Pristina and Pristina International Airport ahead of the arrival of NATO troops.
Upon hearing of the deployment, American NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Wesley Clark called NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana, and was told "you have transfer of authority" in the area. Clark then provisionally ordered a contingent of British and French paratroopers to be flown in by helicopter to seize the airport by force. Staff officers had grave concerns that helicopters might be fired on by Serb forces and that invasion of Kosovo before the agreed time might cause the Serbs to pull out of the agreement. If the airborne force got into trouble it would have been very difficult to reach them overland through the mountainous country where bridges and tunnels were known to be prepared for demolition. As this operation would have been outside the newly signed agreement for NATO forces to move into Kosovo the following day national governments had the right to withdraw their own forces and the French government pulled their battalion out. British paras sat by Chinook helicopters in a hot cornfield for most of the afternoon before standing down to prepare for the following day's move into Kosovo.
At 5:00 a.m. on 12 June, the British 5th Airborne Brigade began flying into Kosovo from Skopje to secure the ten mile long Kačanik Gorge for the 4th Armoured Brigade to pass through to Pristina. From there, the lead reconnaissance troop in the race to Pristina was commanded by British officer Captain James Blunt. The first NATO troops to enter Pristina on 12 June 1999 were Norwegian special forces from FSK Forsvarets Spesialkommando and soldiers from the British Special Air Service's 22 SAS, although to NATO's diplomatic embarrassment Russian troops arrived first at the airport. The Norwegian soldiers from FSK Forsvarets Spesialkommando were the first to come in contact with the Russian troops at the airport and to report the developments back to Mike Jackson. Jackson flew by helicopter to Pristina in the evening to hold a press conference, then went to meet two star general Viktor Zavarzin who commanded the small Russian force. According to other sources there was one more individual called "Colonel Baranov" who was in fact a real commander of the Spetsnaz unit controlling the airbase and whole mission. That mysterious person (wearing face mask for all the time) also known by his code name(s) Volkodar (rus. Wolves' Shepherd) or Kain was a high rank Russian GRU officer observed many times during the Russian highest priority missions around the world, although his real identity remains unknown. Sheltering from heavy rain in the wrecked airport terminal Jackson shared a flask of whisky with Zavarzin, leading to a warming of relations, though "Colonel Baranov" categorically refused to be a part of conversation. That evening Clark still seemed obsessed with the possibility of more Russian troops being flown in even though NATO controlled the airspace. Russia had placed several airbases on standby, and prepared battalions of paratroopers to depart for Pristina on Il-76 military transport planes. Fearing that Russian aircraft were heading for the airport, General Clark planned to order helicopters to block the runway, and requested helicopter support from Admiral James O. Ellis. Jackson's staff contacted the US brigade and were told that the Americans were using their right to opt out of the operation. Two hours later they called to say that the operation was back on again. However, poor weather conditions rendered this impossible at that time.
The following morning, Sunday 13 June, Clark arrived at Jackson's HQ in Skopje. It was pointed out to him that the Russians were isolated and could not be reinforced by air and that Russian support had been a vital part of getting a peace agreement. Antagonising them would only be counterproductive. Clark refused to accept this and continued to order the runway blocked, claiming to be supported by the UN Secretary General. Jackson refused to enforce Clark's orders, reportedly telling him "I'm not going to start the Third World War for you." When again directly ordered to block the runway Jackson suggested that British tanks and armoured cars would be more suitable, in the knowledge that this would almost certainly be vetoed by the British government. Clark agreed. Jackson was ready to resign rather than follow Clark's order. The British Ministry of Defence authorised British force commander Richard Dannatt to use 4 Armoured Brigade to isolate the airfield but not to block the runways. James Blunt has been quoted as saying he would rather have faced a court martial than use force against the Russians. Clark's orders were not carried out, and the United States instead placed political pressure on neighbouring states to not allow Russia to use their airspace to ferry in the reinforcements. Russia was forced to call off the reinforcements after Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania refused requests by Russia to use their airspace.
Negotiations were conducted throughout the stand-off, during which Russia insisted that its troops would only be answerable to Russian commanders, and that it retain an exclusive zone for its own peacekeepers. NATO refused these concessions, predicting that it would lead to the partition of Kosovo into an Albanian south and a Serbian north. Both sides eventually agreed that Russian peacekeepers would deploy throughout Kosovo, but independently of NATO.
After an agreement had been secured, Pristina Airport was reactivated by 53 Field Squadron (Air Support) Royal Engineers as a military airbase on 15 October 1999, then with resumed international air transport to several European cities. During that period, the Russian KFOR along with NATO forces were in charge of security for the airport.
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