Newsday - Russia's Sergeyev tight-lipped in Kosovo

Friday December 24

By Andrew Roche

PRISTINA (Reuters) - Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev held talks with Western military officials in Kosovo on Friday a day after angrily criticizing the NATO-led mission in the province.

The trip by the highest-ranking Russian to Kosovo since NATO-led forces -- along with 3,600 Russian troops -- occupied the province six months ago came amid high tension between the NATO powers and Moscow over Western criticism of Russia's military campaign in Chechnya.

Sergeyev held talks with KFOR peacekeeping force commander Klaus Reinhardt and visiting German Defense Minister Rudolph Scharping, but made no public statements during his visit and cancelled a scheduled news conference without explanation.

NATO officials however were at pains to praise the Russian role in Kosovo in an apparent attempt to soothe strained East-West relations.

Thursday, Interfax news agency quoted Sergeyev as saying: ''Our relations with the alliance have apparently entered a new phase of getting colder. The alliance is trying to talk to Russia over the problem of Chechnya from the position of force.''

NATO European commander General Wesley Clark, also in Kosovo Friday, presented awards to Russian troops who assisted American soldiers after a landmine explosion and held talks with commanders of the multinational force.

``Our cooperation with Russian soldiers on the ground is just outstanding,'' he told reporters. ``KFOR is doing a great job and that's why it was a very good thing that the Russian minister was here today to hear that directly.''

Asked why he had not met Sergeyev, despite the two men being in Pristina at the same time, he said no such meeting had been scheduled.

The plane which carried Sergeyev and his party from Belgrade made a difficult landing at Pristina's airport after apparently suffering an engine failure, KFOR officials said.

The incident did not affect Sergeyev's schedule and he went straight into talks with Reinhardt and Scharping.

Thursday, Sergeyev and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic met and issued a statement which attacked KFOR for failing to stop ``ethnic cleansing'' of Serbs and other non-Albanians in Kosovo.

``Yugoslavia and Russia regard this state of affairs as untenable,'' it said.

``The U.N. Security Council has an obligation to immediately take steps against those responsible for failure to implement its mandate, and to secure the strict respecting of its 1244 resolution and the military-technical agreement.''

Moscow, maintaining traditional ties with its fellow Slavs in Serbia, bitterly opposed NATO's bombing campaign earlier this year.

However, it played a key role in brokering a Serbian withdrawal from Kosovo and has contributed to the U.N.-backed peacekeeping operation while remaining at odds with NATO.

But Wednesday Russia suggested Moscow could review its involvement in KFOR if NATO continued in what Russia called a failure to fulfil the 1244 resolution, which guarantees the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia.

Sergeyev was returning to Belgrade by road in wintry conditions Friday night, Russian military officials said, after his plane suffered damage in the earlier landing at Pristina.

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