DEBELDE, Yugoslavia — U.S. soldiers in Kosovo traded fire Wednesday with gunmen near the Macedonian border, where American troops have been working to contain an ethnic Albanian insurgency. The U.S. military said two gunmen were wounded.
The incident occurred inside Kosovo, just across the border from the Macedonian village of Tanusevci, where Macedonian troops and ethnic Albanian guerrillas clashed for two days this week. No American soldiers were injured, the U.S. military said.
"We don't want any more violence, but this will be up to those armed men," said Maj. James Marshall, a spokesman for the U.S. peacekeepers.
Just seven miles to the northeast, two Yugoslav soldiers were killed and two others injured when their vehicle hit a land mine in the village of Oreovica, on the edge of a buffer zone between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia, Serb Information Minister Biserka Matic said.
The U.S. peacekeepers — part of a NATO-led force in Kosovo — poured into the border village of Debelde this week to help Macedonia prevent the conflict with the guerrillas from spreading.
They were searching for weapons in the nearby hamlet of Mijak early Wednesday when four men in black uniforms with red patches pointed weapons at them. When the men began moving toward them, the U.S. peacekeepers opened fire, the military said. The men shot back before they fled, under cover of fog.
U.S. forces first believed the men had retreated across the border into Macedonia but later were uncertain. One of the wounded gunmen was evacuated by U.S. troops, and peacekeepers were searching Mijak for the second, who remained at large.
"We're not going to allow violence to spill over into Kosovo," Marshall said.
NATO is to decide this week whether to allow Yugoslav forces to help keep ethnic Albanian rebels out of Macedonia, the alliance's secretary-general said.
Lord Robertson said NATO would consider letting Yugoslav troops return to a narrow strip of land along the joint border of Yugoslavia, Macedonia and the Yugoslav province of Kosovo, which remains under NATO and U.N. control.
Under the plan being considered, Yugoslav forces would not be allowed to return to Kosovo. However, Robertson said NATO-led peacekeepers were stepping up controls along the Kosovo-Macedonian border "to restrict the use of Kosovo as a reinforcement area."
The area is within a three-mile-wide buffer zone set up in 1999 around Kosovo to prevent Belgrade's troops from launching surprise attacks against NATO-led peacekeepers, after a 78-day NATO bombing campaign launched to stop then-President Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on Kosovo Albanians.
Ethnic Albanian militants — who want to unite parts of Serbia and Macedonia where ethnic Albanians live— have used the corridor to smuggle weapons and fighters into southern Yugoslavia.
The guerrillas have stepped up activity in northern Macedonia — raising fears of more widespread Balkan conflict. Macedonia has a restive ethnic Albanian community which makes up about one-fourth of its 2 million people.
Battles on the Macedonia side of the border — within shouting distance of Debelde — killed three Macedonian soldiers this week.
Macedonian security officials reported an exodus of local population fleeing the possible widening of clashes.
Macedonian police spokesman, Stevo Pendarovski, said Wednesday that about 300 ethnic Albanians, mostly women and children, fled their homes since Monday in villages along the border.