SKOPJE, Macedonia -- The main contingent of 300 U.S. troops landed here yesterday, about as far from harm's way as it is possible to get in the war-torn Balkans, but carrying ""TC message that the conflict shall spread no further.
The troops chosen to deliver President Clinton's message symbolized the movement from the Cold War to its tumultuous aftermath, because the 196 U.S. infantry troops who landed here were from the Berlin Brigade, who for decades guarded the Cold War flash point along the Berlin Wall.
Here, they join the complex and frustrating United Nations peacekeeping mission along this country's embargoed borders.
It is the first time that U.S. combat troops will have served in the blue berets of U.N. peacekeeping forces.
"I congratulate you on your blue berets," Brig. Gen. Finn Saermark-Thomsen, the Danish U.N. commander, told Lt. Col. Walter L. Holton, commander of the task force, Company C of the 502nd Infantry Battalion. "You have been commissioned here as peacekeepers, which is different from your normal duties as combat soldiers."
Colonel Holton said he was under the operational command of the general. The specific rules of engagement for the troops were not publicized, but Colonel Holton said that in case of conflict, "We would protect ourselves, report to [U.N. headquarters] in Zagreb [in Croatia] and New York and withdraw."
That seemed to match President Clinton's assertion a month ago that the operation would be "a very limited thing -- no combat but an attempt to limit conflict."
Lt. Brian Barto, a 24-year-old engineer officer from Bel Air, Md., was among those who disembarked from the giant C-141 transport planes that lumbered onto the tarmac here after the flight from Germany.
"I'm kind of glad to be here doing something on a real mission," he said. "I wasn't so wild about it at first. We train on being tactical. All of a sudden we got blue helmets and white vehicles. But we understand. It's a peacekeeping mission."
Charlie Company joins the 700 Norwegians, Swedes and Finns who make up the Nordic Battalion, which has monitored the Macedonian borders with Albania and Serbia since February.
They're the first U.S. infantry on the ground in a former Yugoslavian republic. They represent what's left of the Clinton administration's move to a more "activist" Balkan policy.
Embargo routinely broken
For the moment, their mission is to show the U.S. flag, which is supposed to have a deterrent impact on forces -- especially the Serbs -- who might spread the conflict still raging in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. But they also face a frustrating, and monotonous, task of simply watching a border where the embargo against the Serbs and other combatants is being routinely violated.
As General Thomsen puts it, the mandate of the U.N. force here is to "monitor, observe and report." It is not to interfere.
The economic and military embargo by the United Nations theoretically precludes everything but food and medical supplies from coming in or going out.
U.N. troops patrol along the border and at observation posts at eight crossings. This means they watch and count vehicles through high-powered binoculars from Spartan hilltop posts or from atop the white-painted U.N. armored personnel carriers.
And as they do, General Thomsen acknowledges, "Three thousand trucks and 450 trains a week cross. They are breaking the back of the embargo."
His troops don't inspect cargoes or even look into trucks. That's the job of the Macedonian border police, who routinely wave trucks through without a search and rarely turn one back.
"I'm sure when I see a [railroad tank car], it's not carrying water," said the general, a lean, blunt 52-year-old veteran soldier who has served in other U.N. peacekeeping missions in Cyprus and the Persian Gulf.
Yesterday's landing follows the arrival last week of smaller contingents of U.S. troops and completes the force of 300 U.S. soldiers in a lightly armed infantry company with its support groups.
They've brought 90 vehicles, including 14 armored personnel carriers and a host of all-terrain Humvees, a mortar platoon, medics, cooks, military police and a chaplain. They've also brought a TOW platoon, not so much for the missiles as for their thermal sights, which can detect people at night by registering the heat of their bodies.
Counting on fear of U.S.
All of that is hardly enough to stop an attack from the main combatants in the Balkans if the conflict were to spread to Macedonia, but the idea is that the U.S. presence should be enough to make anyone think twice about the force that might be unleashed if U.S. troops were attacked.
"[The Serbs] will think more than twice [before] they make an attack through U.N. soldiers, especially American soldiers. If they did, I'm sure your president would be very angry," General Thomsen said.
After about three weeks of orientation and training as peacekeepers, the Americans will go on patrol and staff observation posts alongside Nordic Battalion soldiers. General Thomsen plans to use them as a ready reserve to plug into trouble spots along Macedonia's northern border with Serbia and the Serbian province of Kosovo.
"When I use them as a reserve, then Serbians will see Americans along the whole border," he said. "It's not in my mandate, but indirectly we are in fact a deterrent force. We are placed between two armies."
A direct attack is the least likely of the scenarios that General Thomsen fears. The ultimate threat is that after getting what they want in Bosnia, the Serbs would begin displacing the majority population of Albanians in Macedonia's neighboring Kosovo ,X province and that this would quickly spill over to Macedonia and encourage the engagement of neighboring countries, Albania, Greece and Bulgaria.
General Thomsen and many others see the potential for a flood of refugees to Macedonia.
The Macedonian government fears this as totally upsetting to the delicate ethnic balance here. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is preparing at least one camp for 100,000 refugees. Ethnic Albanians here have pledged to march north if their "brothers" in Kosovo need help.
General Thomsen also sees a threat from infiltrators, political provocateurs or even terrorists attempting to destabilize the country. And he fears an economic breakdown of the country that will provoke strikes and breakdowns.
The ethnic and religious mix in Macedonia's 2.1 million population is perhaps more complex than in Bosnia-Herzegovina and potentially as explosive.
The largest nationality groups include Slavic Macedonians, Albanians and Bulgarians, but there are also Serbs in the north and Greeks in the south. Muslim minarets punctuate the sky, and Orthodox and Roman Catholic crosses gleam in the sun.
The Serbs used to refer to Macedonia as Southern Serbia. Greece has blocked Macedonia's entry into the European Community in an argument over the name of the country, which they see as implying a claim to the Greek province of Macedonia.
Harvest goes on
But life proceeds here with watchful serenity as farmers harvest golden wheat and as lush garden crops ripen under a midsummer sun.
The arrival of the Americans has been eagerly anticipated but not universally acclaimed.
Macedonian government officials have extended a cool welcome. Only an under-secretary of defense was on the tarmac yesterday with the arriving U.S. contingent.
On the streets here and in villages and towns near the border, Macedonians and Albanians seem glad Americans have come. But Macedonia is burdened by the economic embargo. So far, except for the troops, Macedonians complain that the United States has not been much help to them since they declared independence almost two years ago.
As for the arrival of the troops yesterday, one Macedonian, who asked not to be identified because he is employed by the United Nations, said, "Nobody likes anybody with guns to come into their country."
Serbs evince even more skepticism. In Serbian villages, shopkeepers display pictures of Zeljko Raznatovic, the fierce Serbian irregular known as "Arkan," who has struck terror in Croatia and Kosovo. Arkan has been listed as a potential defendant in war crimes trials.
The U.S. Army is respected as a formidable war maker -- especially by the Serbs, say Nordic Battalion soldiers who patrol the borders. But not everyone is convinced Americans can become good peacekeepers.
At a hot, hilltop post near a border crossing between Macedonia and Kosovo, a young Norwegian commander of an armored personnel carrier named Harald Welde said, "If I'm shot at and I have a chance to back up and take the guys back to the base, I do that. That may be chicken, but that's peacekeeping."