P R I S T I N A, Kosovo, March 11, 2001 -- American troops are conducting increasingly difficult balancing act as they patrol the trails of southern Kosovo — trying to keep the peace in the midst of renewed ethnic fighting, without being drawn into a wider conflict.
The United States recently has been under intense pressure from Britain and other Western allies to send American troops across the Kosovo border into Serbia, where Albanian rebels have set up commando bases.
However, President Bush, wary of increased U.S. military involvement abroad, last week rejected the request, and ordered American soldiers to stay out of Serbia.
The soldiers on patrol use hand-held satellite positioning units to keep themselves within Kosovo borders.
"Americans killing Albanians, which is what will have to happen if we go in there, is going to put at risk the commitment of many now-moderate Albanians to working with America and with the rest of Europe," warns James O'Brien, former U.S. special envoy to the Balkans.
Still, the atmosphere in Kosovo is tense, too, and even there it may not be that easy to keep out of entanglements.
U.S. Soldiers On Foot And Under Fire
Charlie Company, part of the 1st Battalion of the 325th Airborne, from Ft. Bragg, N.C., is just one piece in the massive operation to stabilize the region. As they conduct their patrols, the soldiers of Charlie Company are trying to prevent a guerrilla war — trying to stop ethnic Albanian extremists in the region from conducting guerrilla combat operations against neighboring Serbia and Macedonia.
In recent days, a small patrol ran into Albanian gunmen. The guerrillas use the very same trails, and despite the sophisticated surveillance equipment available to the U.S. forces, there is no substitute for foot patrols.
There was "pretty heavy shelling" last Sunday, remarked Cpt. Marcus Evans, and his soldiers were fired on. U.S. troops shot and wounded two Albanians in the area last week.
Asking The Serb Military For Help
The situation in the region has changed remarkably since 5,000 U.S. troops arrived two years ago to protect the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians who had suffered at the hands of the Serbs.
NATO has now asked the Serb military to return to the buffer zone between Albania and Serbia, to help Western forces prevent an armed Albanian uprising that could engulf the Balkans in another war.
That leaves Charlie company on the side of an old U.S. enemy, the Serbs. At the same time, however, they are trying to keep track of which Albanians remain friends, and which might be a threat to peace.
Staff Sgt. Mark Anderson admits there is a parallel between his troop's situation in Kosovo and that of American soldiers in Vietnam a generation earlier, when it was hard to tell the farmers from the Viet Cong.
"You could say it's sort of similar right here," admits Anderson.
ABCNEWS' Mike Lee, on patrol with the U.S. Army in Kosovo, contributed to this report.