KOSOVO SITREP (II)

May 19, 2000

Comment: #356
 
Discussion Thread:  #355 Kosovo SITREP

References:

[1] Email from a Marine Officer. Attached.

[2] Marni McEntee, "Mortar Attack Has Soldiers On Edge In Kosovo," European Stars and Stripes, May 15, 2000,  Pg. 3.  Attached.

SSGT Kutznikolai (a pseudonym for an active duty Army Staff Sergeant) responded quickly to the Kosovo SITREP [Comment #355] with an email that said "I noticed a lot of "locking and loading" in that message.   I also noticed our tactic of using hovering helos to kick up covering dust clouds. Visions of Mogadishu are dancing through my head. Any cop will tell you that riot control is tricky, and in this situation, our guys can't just wait for the National Guard to come in and save their bacon."

Kutznikolai's comment worried me, in part because he reminded me that the Somalis shot down our helicopters with inaccurate RPG-7 hand held anti-tank rockets during the firefight in Mogadishu.  I asked a Marine infantry officer with experience in Somalia to give me his interpretation of the situation described in the SITREP [Comment #355]. What follows is his emailed response to my request.

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Reference 1:

Thoughts From a Marine Officer

Chuck,

Your latest commentary on the Kosovo situation contains one of the strongest indicators I've seen that our mission over there is beginning to unravel at an alarming rate.

The e-mail that you sent out from the Army officer clearly shows that our young soldiers are being pushed to the limit of restraint. Though I'm not on the ground, I've seen the look in young Marines' eyes when the crowds start to push in and control deteriorates.

The use of tear gas and other riot control measures seems appropriate. However, what truly scares me is the increasingly frequent use of "warning shots" to control a situation. When a soldier or Marine "locks and loads" he needs to be prepared to use his weapon for what it was designed for, and that doesn't include warning shots. Simple ballistics will tell you that whatever goes up must come down. How long will it be before a warning shot comes down in the middle of a crowd far removed from the scene of chaos?

Of even greater concern is the "desensitizing" of both the soldiers and the Serbs (and Albanians) to this warning fire. What happens when the crowd doesn't back down? When the rocks continue to be thrown? When the loud, angry, and threatening mass of humanity presses closer? At some point a rifle barrel is going to be lowered, and when it does the next shot will not be a warning shot.

From several sources I've seen recently we are not far from the exchange of gunfire that is going to dramatically change the character of this operation. Regrettable, it seems as though little will be done until its too late. When that happens, the Kosovars will be adding to the graves that already dot their countryside, and we'll be sending details to Dover to receive the remains of US service members who won't see another sunrise.

Semper Fi,
A Marine Officer
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Reference #2 provides additional information that seems to add credence to the concerns expressed above.  Note particularly the reference to soldiers being shaken and frustrated, the inability to determine who is causing the trouble, the firing of warning shots in the air, and the dependence on vulnerable hovering helicopters to drive rioters away with rotor blast.

So the question is, to paraphrase the Marine officer, are we close to an exchange of gunfire?  When thinking about this question, it is worth remembering that a far less tense situation at Kent State led to gunfire and a loss of control.  Only this time, there are three sides, a highly developed vendetta culture, and all are armed.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference #2:

European Stars and Stripes
May 15, 2000,
Pg. 3

Mortar Attack Has Soldiers On Edge In Kosovo

By Marni McEntee, Macedonia bureau

VRBOVAC, Kosovo ó They call it the Iron Triangle ó Vrbovac, Mogila and Grncar ó three mainly Serbian towns surrounded by majority-Albanian communities. In the past two weeks, the "triangle" has meant triple trouble for U.S. troops.

In the latest incident Saturday night, someone on a nearby hillside lobbed five mortar rounds that landed just 650 feet from two command posts operated by Company B, 1st Infantry Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment. After two weeks of nearly daily violence, including a terrifying night earlier this week when soldiers were mobbed by rock-throwing Serbian townspeople, the mortar attack left Company B soldiers shaken and frustrated.

"I was on the second floor and I watched the whole thing start," said Sgt. Jeff Deuitch. "It scared the [expletive] out of me."

Deuitch and the others hit the deck when the incoming rounds continued, then grabbed their flak gear and weapons and ran outside. With the light of day on Sunday, soldiers found five burned patches in a nearby farm field, from which the yellow tower of the church that Company B guards is visible.

Although the damage to the field looked insignificant, the attack was not. Mortar shells spread a shower of lethal shrapnel in a 100-to-160-foot radius from the impact area, said Maj. David Funk, executive officer of the battalion, who picked up several silver shards out of the charred dirt.

"Imagine that hitting you at 300 miles per hour," Funk said. "It kills or maims anything within the radius."

The mortar attack is the first in the area since December and some speculate it could be the return of the so-called "mad mortar man," whose attacks plagued the area around Gnjilane for several months late last year.

It is unknown whether the mortars were meant to hit the command posts or simply to send a message. And itís anyoneís guess whether the message was from an Albanian targeting Serbian residents of the town or from a Serbian shooter aiming at the American troops townspeople have taken to antagonizing.

The troops still must guard the Y-intersection into the town, and are met with varying levels of malevolence by the Serbian townspeople. As troops guarded the intersection Sunday, they could point out at least two of the men involved in the stoning on Wednesday night as the men lounged at an farm-supply store.

"Right now they donít trust KFOR," Staff Sgt. Mark Williams said of the Serbs in the area. The companyís only friend in town, he joked, is a rangy dog that hangs out around the Humvee.

The mortar attack has left the unit feeling more vulnerable than ever.

"The technical term," deadpanned 1st Lt. Lou Bauer, "is too close for comfort."

Soldiers conducted a cordon-and- search operation Sunday in Delecare, a mainly Albanian town two miles northeast of Vrbovac. It is believed to be the site where the mortars were launched. A search of one home turned up a uniform from the former Kosovo Liberation Army, or UCK, and one man suspected of being involved in a disturbance about a month ago was detained for questioning. But soldiers admit it will be challenging to apprehend the person or people who shot the mortars, because it obviously is a "packable" weapon, Funk said.

The mortar attack was the second major scare for Deuitch, whose company arrived in Kosovo three months ago. On Wednesday night, an explosion that destroyed an unoccupied home in Vrbovac prompted the town residents to become "hysterical," Deuitch and Williams said. When Company B troops arrived in a Humvee, they were immediately surrounded by rock-throwing crowds.

Deuitch said for what seemed like forever, he was alone in front of the Serbian Orthodox church that the unit guards, waiting for his mobbed compadres to back him up. One elderly Serbian woman walked up to him and spit in his face. Others surrounded him and hurled insults and rocks.

It wasnít until Deuitch fired warning shots into the air and tear gas into the crowd that they backed off. And the melee didnít end until a helicopter operated by United Arab Emirates troops hovered near the ground, driving people away with its rotor blast.

"Iím a big guy, but I didnít sleep for two nights after that," said Deuitch, who stands a solid 6 feet 5 inches.