HANI.I.ELEZIT, Yugoslavia — Peace came lumberingly, noisily and poignantly to Kosovo on Saturday as what appeared to be endless convoys of thundering tanks and heavily armored vehicles inched across the border to clear and secure the two-lane road leading to the provincial capital, Pristina.
KFOR, as the international peacekeeping force for the Serbian province is known, got off to a roaring start about 5:30 a.m., but its advance became a crawl and sometimes a complete stop not long after, as the troops found ghost towns riddled with booby traps, tunnels laden with mines and even gun-toting members of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army.
The first contingent of American soldiers--an element of the 1st Infantry Division on a mission to set up communications for the commander of U.S. forces--entered Kosovo several hours after the first units of peacekeepers had arrived.
All in all, the first day of NATO's mission in Kosovo was filled with exhilaration for the Kosovo Albanians and moments both amazing and surreal.
It was marred chiefly by the continuing presence of about 200 Russian troops from Bosnia-Herzegovina that had managed to reconnoiter at the Pristina airport early Saturday.
A lone, weathered refugee, Shaban Bela, 65, his white skullcap contrasting with his deeply bronzed, leathery skin, crossed back to his homeland at the border with Macedonia carrying only a new pair of shoes and a bag. Once past the gatehouse, he climbed aboard an allied tank and flashed a V-for-victory sign.
Crowds of refugee children, housed in two sprawling tent cities near the Macedonian border, clapped and chanted "NATO! NATO!" as each of hundreds of vehicles, from tanks to armored troop carriers, passed.
The singsong sounded more like "Knot-to," but it boosted soldiers' morale nonetheless. Some kids threw the red poppies that grow wild in the fields lining the road.
It was the first time many of the troops had seen the refugees, whose repatriation is the main reason they are here. Some soldiers could be seen dabbing away tears as they sat atop their tanks; at least one took out a camera and snapped a photo.
"It's nice to know you're appreciated," said one.
By nightfall, about 6,000 mostly British soldiers had moved into the territory, and NATO commander British Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson, after arriving by chopper at Pristina's airport, had taken command in Kosovo.
The Western troops who entered Kosovo on Saturday were the vanguard of up to 50,000 peacekeepers whose deployment Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic finally agreed to Thursday after 11 weeks of punishing airstrikes by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Milosevic, whose forces conducted a vicious campaign of "ethnic cleansing" against the province's ethnic Albanian majority both before and during the air war, also agreed that his 40,000 or so troops would withdraw. As of late Friday, NATO said, about 10,000 Serbian police and soldiers had left, along with 11 MIG-29s.
U.S. forces, which up to now have been providing support for soldiers from other nations, will start moving in larger numbers into Kosovo today, Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Washington. The American presence will include four mobile infantry battalions, one artillery battalion, two engineer battalions, military police and an aviation task force.
Among the first U.S. peacekeepers to move into the province will be members of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. About 7,000 American troops are destined to participate in Operation Joint Guardian.
In Pristina, NATO's arrival continued to be overshadowed by the earlier, unexpected entry of Russian troops Saturday. The Russians, traditional Yugoslav allies, are demanding a separate peacekeeping zone of their own within the province, but the alliance strongly opposes the notion.
Jackson downplayed the incident to reporters, saying he "welcomed" the Russians as part of KFOR. Still, what one military official described as a "cordial" meeting between British and Russian officials at Pristina's airport was described as "tense" by a British pool reporter.
Late Saturday, how the Russians and NATO will cooperate in Kosovo remained unclear. In Moscow, talks on the issue between Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Russian officials ended inconclusively.
For his part, President Clinton offered to join with Russia to ensure peace.
"We are working now with the Russians to assure that we can work together in the unified command structure," the president told members of the Illinois Air National Guard at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, observing that such a structure is functioning with U.S. and Russian cooperation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Balkan nation whose 3 1/2-year war ended in 1995.
"This is important," the president said, vowing to protect Serbs and ethnic Albanians alike in Kosovo.