PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- NATO peacekeepers began moving into Kosovo on Saturday, just hours after a Russian armored column entered the province's capital in what Russian officials called a mistake.
NATO Chinook and Puma helicopters carrying members of Britain's elite Gurkha rifle regiment and paratroopers flew across the border, setting into motion "Operation Joint Guardian," one of the biggest military undertakings in Europe since World War II.U.S. Apache attack helicopters flew parallel with the British across the border.
The helicopters will land troops on high ground along a gorge overlooking the main road north to the Kosovo capital Pristina, where Russian troops arrived hours earlier unexpectedly.
Shortly after the helicopters flew into Kosovo, NATO vehicles began rolling into the province at Blace, Macedonia, pool reporters said.
"We're going in to secure peace and make peace," Brigadier Adrian Freer, commander of the British 5th Airborne brigade, said as he prepared to depart. "I don't see this as a victory or triumphalist approach. We've got to make sure we rebuild this country into a peaceful part of Europe."
Hours earlier, a convoy of Russian soldiers moved into Kosovo's capital to the crackle of celebratory gunfire, honking horns and cheering Serb crowds. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said the troops had arrived "unfortunately" and that they had been ordered to leave Kosovo.
"The reasons for this are being determined. They have been ordered to leave Kosovo immediately and to await further orders," Ivanov said in comments carried by CNN. The White House welcomed Ivanov's announcement.
The troops from Russia, a nation many Serbs view as an ally, arrived as British and French NATO troops waited in Macedonia on Kosovo's southern border, preparing to enter as part of an international peacekeeping force authorized by the United Nations.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott went into immediate pre-dawn talks with officials in Moscow, but it was unclear which officials had ordered the Russian troops to move. The Russian news agency ITAR-Tass said the decision was made by the Russian Defense Ministry and the Yugoslav military.
ITAR-Tass quoted an unnamed "high-ranking officer" from the Yugoslav general staff as saying Serbia "is interested in seeing Russian peacemakers entering Kosovo first."
There was also no immediate sign if the troops would obey the orders Ivanov announced. The Russians moved west to the village of Kosovo Polje on the outskirts of the city near the airport and stopped for the night. The convoy was believed to contain 200 to 300 soldiers. The Yugoslavia news agency said were 10 armored personnel carriers and 30 trucks.
Russia has been widely expected to take part in the peacekeeping force, but Talbott had failed Friday to resolve differences with Moscow over who would command the Russians and where they would be based.
Russian generals have been demanding a separate zone within Kosovo under their control. NATO has strongly opposed this, fearing creation of a zone in Kosovo where Serbs might still be able to exercise authority.
With shouting, flag-waving, fireworks and shots fired into the air, thousands of people crowded the main street of Kosovo's capital city to greet the Russian soldiers, who arrived shortly after midnight (6 p.m. EDT). Many Serbs in Kosovo fear that NATO peacekeepers will be unwilling or unable to protect them from attacks by Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas and Albanian refugees when they return to the province.
The convoy crept through an avenue jammed with people, many waving the Yugoslav flag and shouting, "Russia! Russia!" As it drove past the downtown Grand Hotel, people jumped on the vehicles, hailing the Russians as heroes.
"It's very important the Russians came first," said Miroslav Dancetovic, 18. "They are on our side, while NATO openly supports the Albanian side."
In Washington, officials said they had been reassured by Russia that its troops would not be deployed in Kosovo ahead of the international peacekeeping force, known as KFOR. When the convoy arrived, White House Spokesman Joel Lockhart said, "We're currently trying to get clarification about the facts."
After Ivanov spoke, Lockhart said, "As Foreign Minister Ivanov has said, it was an unfortunate mistake, and the Russian troops will be withdrawn immediately. We're pleased that they've agreed to rectify the situation. The constructive talks toward determining the Russian's role in the peacekeeping forces continue with Strobe Talbott in Moscow."
Conflicting reports on Russia's intentions had emerged Friday morning after the armored Russian column arrived from Bosnia in Belgrade.
Russia's Interfax news agency initially said about 1,000 Russians would be leaving Saturday afternoon and flying to cities in Kosovo, including Pristina.
But then, quoting unidentified high-ranking military sources, ITAR-Tass said plans to go all the way to Kosovo on Friday had been called off.