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No peace for the peacekeepers as U.S. troops walk Kosovo beat

MARINE CAMP MONTIETH, Yugoslavia -- Amid the tedium that anchors a Marine's day, sentries were frisking three civilian visitors Thursday morning when shots rang out.

Maybe a quarter mile off, maybe closer. Bursts of automatic weapons fire."That's too close," shouted one Marine as his buddy ducked behind a nest of sandbags.

Troops streamed down the hillside at this post near Cernice, southeast of Pristina, to reinforce the checkpoint. Two helicopter gunships soon buzzed over the pasture where the gunfire came from.

A half-hour passed. No gunmen were found, no casualties suffered.

The U.S. troops walking the Kosovo beat as the world's police officers so far have hardly fired their rifles.

Yet the soldiers and Marines confess to a certain uneasiness born of keeping peace between Kosovo's Serbs and ethnic Albanians -- vengeful rivals the troops can't tell apart and who even in civilian clothing are often armed and angry.

"Everybody here's got a grudge against somebody else," said Maj. Erik Gunhus, a U.S. Army spokesman. "And everybody's saying, 'This guy's a war criminal, that guy's a war criminal,' but we don't have the manpower to police every situation."

And there is at least the threat of danger for the roughly 2,100 U.S. soldiers and 1,900 Marines holding down the American sector of NATO's evolving peacekeeping mission in Kosovo.

Last week, soldiers hustled Brig. Gen. John Craddock, commander of U.S. forces in the Yugoslav province, out of a meeting with Kosovo Liberation Army officers after an ethnic Albanian raised a grenade in his hand.

On Wednesday, Marines at a checkpoint in Zegra came under fire from a small group of Serbs. The Americans avoided injury in an incident that ended with two Serbs captured, two more wounded and one dead.

"We have no motive," said Col. Kenneth Glueck, commander of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. "They could have been drunk. It puts our people on a high state of alert. You're out there for a week and there's nothing and then there's shots coming at you. You wake up a bit."

How the U.S. peacekeepers respond to their mission can differ village by village and hour by hour.

The shootout in Zegra was clear enough. Marines say some men were milling near a store about 150 yards from the Americans' checkpoint. One Serb started shooting randomly, Glueck said, and turned his fire on the Americans when he noticed them. A little more than an hour later, the search of a few buildings was complete and the deadly confrontation was over.

Thursday brought a less clear-cut dilemma for the Marines. By late morning, 20 Serb families fleeing vengeful ethnic Albanians lined up in a convoy to wait for an escort to nearby Gomja Budriga as flames swallowed their wood and brick homes.

Marines stood at their post about 200 yards away. They drove to where the shooting and burning took place about 30 minutes.

"We are trying to respond the best we can," said Capt. Robert Riggle of Overland Park. "If we see it, we're going to stop it. We just can't be everywhere at once."

In the meantime, Albanians looted the homes of the mostly Serb village and hauled the booty to their houses a few miles away in Lladove.

"We're taking back the things they stole from us," said Haziz Haziri, his wagon overflowing with clothes, a washing machine, radios and a freezer. "It's right to take what is ours."