NYT - Land mine kills GI in Kosovo, and US wonders who laid it

December 17, 1999


WASHINGTON, Dec. 16 -- An American soldier in Kosovo died early today after his vehicle struck a land mine that may have been planted in a recent act of sabotage, Pentagon officials said. His was the first American death in the NATO's peacekeeping operation not caused by an accident or suicide.

Kosovo is littered with mines, but officials said they suspected that the mine that killed the soldier might have been placed recently, because his vehicle was traveling on a road that had been used regularly and was thus believed to be free of mines.

The soldier, Staff Sgt. Joseph E. Suponcic, 26, was riding in an Army Humvee when the mine detonated on Wednesday night near Kosovska Kamenica, in southeastern Kosovo, in the part of the American zone regularly patrolled by Russian troops.

A helicopter flew the sergeant to a hospital at the main American base in Kosovo, but he died about five hours later, according to the headquarters of the Army's European Command in Heidelberg, Germany. The driver was slightly wounded.

It was not immediately clear who might have laid the mine. Both Serbian forces and Kosovo Albanian rebels used mines during the civil war that ended with the occupation of Kosovo by more than 40,000 NATO-led troops in June. Since then, Kosovo has been riven by violent acts by Albanians against Serbs and, less often, against peacekeepers.

The area around Kamenica saw little fighting, and it is one of the few parts of Kosovo that still has a significant population of Serbs. Both the remaining Serbs in Kosovo and Russian peacekeepers, who are viewed as historical and cultural Serb allies, have been the targets of attacks by Kosovar Albanians, officials said.

A Pentagon official said a mine laid in that area would presumably be meant to harm Serbian civilians or Russian troops, raising the possibility that it was laid by Albanians.

Sergeant Suponcic, a member of the Third Battalion of the 10th Special Forces (Airborne), based at Fort Carson, Colo., was assigned to the American unit that serves as a liaison with the Russian peacekeepers. He was one of few Americans in that part of the American sector.

The Pentagon's spokesman, Kenneth H. Bacon, said that it was possible that a long-dormant mine had been exposed by rain and that that the circumstances were still under review. But he said that while other mines were believed to be the sides of the road, the mine that killed Sergeant Suponcic was on the road itself.

In the six months since the peacekeeping operation began, six other Americans have been killed in Kosovo and another in Macedonia, but this was the first death caused by a hostile act, the officials said.

The United States and NATO suffered no combat casualties during the 78-day air war over Serbia last spring. But two Army soldiers died in a helicopter crash during a training mission in Albania.


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