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On Kosovo frontier, a mission chasing 'ghosts'

President Bush is due to meet US troops in Kosovo tomorrow.

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Sgt. Mike Martinez shifts the rifle slung across his shoulders, scans the tree line across the valley, and listens to the early-morning bird song and distant cowbells.

In the meadow below him, nothing moves. He checks his Global Positioning System again, and shrugs. "That's why we call ourselves the Ghostbusters," he smiles. "If there was anybody here," he says, referring to their comrades' reports of eight ethnic-Albanian guerrillas passing through, "they're long gone."

The sergeant's fruitless patrol - a long Humvee ride followed by a long walk to search for guerrillas trying to slip across the border into nearby Macedonia - illustrates the difficulties facing the US troops in Kosovo, whom President Bush is due to visit tomorrow.

"We're here for a peacekeeping mission, not war, so the assets aren't here," Martinez's company commander, Capt. Joe Ross, later explains. "And this is the most difficult terrain to work in. It's easy for people to hide" in the thickly wooded hills.

The 100 or so men from the 101st Airborne under Captain Ross's command, living behind eight-foot sandbag walls in a small base a few miles from Kosovo's southern border with Macedonia, are as close as any American soldiers in the world to a real war.

From their observation posts along the mountainous frontier, they have watched Macedonian troops and ethnic-Albanian guerrillas exchange rocket and mortar fire. And to stop such skirmishes from turning into anything worse, they have been trying to interdict rebel supply routes from Kosovo.

They have had mixed success, they say. The night before Martinez' patrol went out, another eight-man squad had been manning a roadblock in the ramshackle village of Zhegera shortly before midnight when an approaching car suddenly stopped, did a tire-screeching U-turn, and disappeared up a dirt side track.

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