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British engineer is first into Kosovo to assess the damage

THE FIRST engineer to start assessing the scale of damage in Kosovo has spoken exclusively to NCE of his dramatic entry to the country ahead of the British Army convoy.

Captain Matthew Walton-Knight of the 527 Specialist Team Royal Engineers crossed the Kosovo border early on Saturday morning.

As a member of the lead British group he travelled with the 5th Airborne Brigade four hours ahead of the main advance.

Chartered civil engineer Walton-Knight's task on the 10-hour journey from Skopje in Macedonia to the Kosovan capital Pristina was to assess the condition and safety of more than 80 structures along the route.

The British 4th Armoured Brigade's convoy of 70t Challenger tanks, AS90 self-propelled artillery guns and Warrior infantry fighting vehicles could not follow into Kosovo until he had given the all-clear.

Speaking to NCE on Monday from the western side of Pristina, Walton- Knight told how he had to abseil beneath a major bridge that had been mined by the Serbs.

'There were anti-personnel and anti-tank mines on the abutments. Regrettably a cow had wandered underneath the bridge and met a very untimely death,' he said.

Walton-Knight used the Royal Engineers' empirical formulae to rapidly assess eight major bridges, 42 bridges of less than 12m span and about 30 culverts on the 70km route. Grade of concrete of structures was tested using a Schmidt rebound hammer.

'It's a grossly simplified method but it gives us a reasonable guide. In times of conflict we reduce the factor of safety anyway,' he said.

All the structures were passable although Walton-Knight placed a 40km/h speed limit on them, chiefly to reduce the risk of heavy impact loading in an accident. Two of the bridges had been prepared for demolition but the withdrawing Serb forces had removed explosives in line with last week's peace deal between Nato and Yugoslavia.

Walton-Knight has now begun assessing damage inside Pristina. He claimed properties in predominantly ethnic Albanian areas of the city had been burned and shot at while roads were mined and barricaded with over-turned cars.

Water, sewerage and electricity services and the city's main bridges appear to be in 'reasonable order'. However, the fear is that the mainly Serbian workforce for the water supply system will flee as ethnic Albanians return to their homes.

'We are bringing a specialist water development team into the city to keep the system running if the Serbian workers leave their posts,' he said.

About 1,100 Royal Engineers equipped with Mabey Johnson universal and compact bridge kits, close support bridging and heavy and medium girder bridges are stationed in Macedonia. Up to 700 are being moved into Kosovo to carry out emergency repairs to infrastructure and set up British Army camps.

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