U.S. Forces Monitor Troubled Border
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
SKOPJE, FORMER YUGOSLAV REPUBLIC OF MACEDONIA, Oct. 7, 1998 More than a thousand multinational troops, including about 350 Americans, now man observation posts along this nation's borders with Bosnia -- where peace prevails -- and Kosovo, where violence reigns.
During a recent visit here, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen praised the U.S. military personnel whose mission it is to observe, monitor and report activities on the border.
"You perform an incredible service to our country and to the people here," Cohen told about 200 of the American troops serving as part of the U.N. Preventive Deployment Force. The mission has introduced "an element of stability in a sea of instability," he said.
The republic declared its independence after the Yugoslavian federation dissolved in 1989. The U.N. Preventive Deployment Force has monitored its borders since 1992 at the government's request. Military observers report any activities that could undermine FYROM's stability or threaten its territory. Americans joined the mission in 1993 when trouble in Bosnia threatened to spill over.
This summer, due to the unresolved crisis in Kosovo, the United Nations extended the observer mission mandate from August to February 1999. U.N. authorities set up another base camp and four new observation posts, along the Kosovo-FYROM border.
The authorities also upped the troop strength from 750 to 1,050 by boosting the size of the Nordic battalion, a unit of troops from Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. The size of other force members, an Indonesian engineering platoon and a U.S. battalion, remained the same.
The U.S. Army's 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, from Schweinfurt, Germany, rotated to FYROM in August for a six-month tour. The contingent includes two mechanized infantry companies and three "Whitehawks" -- UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters painted white with U.N. markings -- for patrols and medevac operations.
Preventing conflict before it breaks out saves more lives and money than trying to stop a war, according to U.N. officials. In this case, they say, the U.N. force has been a successful deterrent.
At a late-September conference here, Christopher R. Hill, U.S. ambassador to FYROM, praised the U.N. operation. "[It] has absolutely played a historical role in keeping this country stable and assuring its neighbors that we fully support Macedonia's territorial integrity," he said.
During the past few years, observers witnessed smuggling operations as cigarettes, tires, cars and other items were carried through FYROM's remote mountain passes. While U.N. troops report what they see to FYROM authorities, they do not interfere.
In August, however, regional tensions drew ever closer to the border area. A Nordic foot patrol discovered two Serb anti- personnel mines in a disputed area along the FYROM border. Soldiers saw the sun glinting off a trip wire. U.N. officials said CNN and other news agencies reported Serb forces had begun mining their borders with Albania and Macedonia in late July.
"They were afraid members of the Kosovo Liberation Army would start sneaking into Macedonia and up into Kosovo, said a U.S. military official speaking on background. U.S. authorities also say the Serbs mined a main road through the mountains to deter fleeing Kosovar refugees from entering FYROM.
The political profile of this mission has been continuously on the rise, a U.N. official said.