Russians Raced To Pristina Underground Airport Secrets
By Tom Walker
At Slatina Airfield, Pristina
RUSSIA'S initial dash to Kosovo may have had less to do with politics than with the protection of military secrets in underground hangars at Pristina's Slatina airport, it was suggested yesterday.
The 270 soldiers who embarrassed Nato by beating alliance forces to the Kosovo capital returned to Bosnia yesterday as mysteriously as they had arrived. The airfield was one of the jewels in the crown of the late President Tito's formidable defence network.
The two western taxiways of the north-south runway lead directly into a mountain, continuing for hundreds of yards inside.
In Tito's day schoolchildren would be taken on trips to the facility. During the decade of President Milosevic's repression, it has become one of the inner sanctums of his security machine, with civilian access barred.
Sources at Jane's Defence Weekly speculated yesterday that the Russians may have had an interest in keeping Nato nations away from Slatina while the hangars and storage areas were cleared. The sources suggested that Slatina could have housed air defence and missile systems unfamiliar to the West that had been recently sold or hired to Belgrade in breach of sanctions.
Among the hardware the Yugoslav Army may have had inside the underground facility are SA10 surface-to-air missiles and a Czech-designed triangulation device, known as "Tamara", capable of tracking Stealth aircraft.
An RAF officer in the British sector of Slatina said that during the first few days of Russian control, "the stuff was pouring out of here". The officer, who was allowed into the Russian sector of the base only days ago, said Slatina was one of the most impressive military facilities he had seen.
Louis Garneau, Nato's Kosovo spokesman, said the Canadian Army had been unsuccesful in monitoring what the Russians were up to. On Saturday night, for the first time in their month-long occupation of the airfield, the Russians allowed a few reporters on to the western taxiways.
Attempts to view the tunnels into the mountain were thwarted and officers insisted that the hangars inside the mountain were empty. There was evidence that Nato had attempted to bomb one of the massive steel doors protecting the tunnels but the Russians said it was still possible for aircraft to taxi in and out.
Local Albanians have always maintained that Slatina was used to house chemical weapons, and a source at Jane's Defence Weekly said that similar facilities in Iraq had been used in this way. He pointed out, however, that accusations that the Serbs had used chemical weapons in the Bosnian conflict were largely unfounded, and there was little proof that they had been employed in Kosovo. Officially, the Yugoslav Army said Slatina was always used to house Mig21 and 29 aircraft.
Major Paul Young, a British Kfor spokesman, said Slatina's tunnels may at last be opened to the press this week. The Russians, however, were less sure, and Lieutenant-Colonel Mikhail Koftunyenko said permission could only come from senior levels within the Russian Army.
As the initial and most controversial deployment of 270 Russians drove north to Podujevo yesterday, there was a sense at Kfor headquarters that the mystery of what was in Slatina will remain unsolved.