Russian troops joined the Kosovo peace force Saturday to cheers from Serbs, jeers from Albanians and a shooting incident to underscore the tension in the province.
A unit of Russian paratroopers drove into a heavily damaged cement factory on the outskirts of the town of Kosovska Kamenica to take over from U.S. soldiers who had been using the building. Their plan was to set up an advance base for a larger force.
It was the first deployment by the Russians outside the airport in the provincial capital of Pristina, which they took over last month in a lightning push before NATO troops moved into Kosovo following the alliance's 11-week bombardment of Yugoslavia.
Ethnic Albanians in some parts of Kosovo have protested plans to put Russian troops in their towns. Many see Russians as allies of the Serbs and reminders of the horrors the Albanians suffered under a Serb crackdown before and during NATO's bombing campaign.
The commander of the Russian contingent, Lt. Col. Alexander Markov, sought to allay the fears of ethnic Albanians.
Â"We're only here to do the job of peacekeepers, to give support and to help Serbs and Albanians. We do not make any difference between them,Â" he said.
The simmering tension they face in Kosovo was highlighted when a Serb man was shot and seriously wounded in his home close to the Russian base shortly before their arrival.
Local Serbs enthusiastically welcomed the arrival of the Russians, and planned to hold a dance for them later in the evening.
Despite NATO's pledge to protect them, at least 60,000 Serbs have fled the province in the face of revenge attacks by returning ethnic Albanian refugees. More than 600,000 refugees have flooded home since Serbian troops started pulling out to make way for NATO forces June 12.
Elsewhere, in the western Kosovo village of Ljubenic, heavy rain and low clouds frustrated hopes of villagers to lead peacekeepers on a search for bodies in the mountains west of the town where locals say as many as 350 ethnic Albanians were killed by Serb forces. The area is in rugged terrain about four miles south of Pec.
Villagers say most of the victims had fled into the snow-covered mountains to escape their Serb attackers, but bones scattered on the ground in the village showed some never made it that far.
Meanwhile, Slobodan Milosevic, the indicted war criminal blamed for sparking the bloody campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, has been taking a political beating in SerbiaÂ's streets in mounting protests to his rule.
About 4,000 people demonstrated Thursday in the southern Serbian town of Prokuplje, the latest in a series of almost daily protests aimed at bringing down the Serb leader.