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Putting down roots

Despite recent events in Serbia, KFOR Royal Engineers are digging in for a long term commitment in Kosovo. Richard Bennett reports from Pristina.

Most engineers would agree that paving a dirt road with asphalt brings many advantages. Maintenance is reduced, ride quality is improved, and traffic speeds increased. In developing countries, paving roads improves the transportation of goods and people, which boosts the economy and can dramatically increase the quality of life.

But few civilian engineers would consider all the additional security and military implications of paving dirt roads. Apart from allowing faster movement of troops, laying blacktop has a very important security function - it prevents landmines being planted.

For the Royal Engineers' 26 Engineer Regiment working as part of KFOR in Kosovo, this is behind a £1.6M road scheme currently under way near the capital, Pristina. To the south west of the city, 6.5km of road is being improved and paved as part of operation 'Trojan'.

It will link up all the main villages in this predominantly Serb area, known as the 'Serb cresent'. The intention is to allow the 250 Serb families in the area to move safely between the villages without having to stray onto roads passing through Kosovo Albanian controlled areas, where they could become targets.

Seventeen months after the withdrawal of the Yugoslavian Army, tensions between the Serb and ethnic Albanian communities regularly erupt into violence. Exchanges of gunfire are a daily occurrence near the provincial boundary with Serbia, and throughout Kosovo shootings and bombings kill an average of one person per day.

During the summer two Serbs were killed when their car triggered a landmine planted by Kosovo Albanians on a dirt road in the Serb crescent. By paving a 3km stretch of road between the villages of Ugljare and Preoce, along with a 3.5km section between the villages of Lapje Selo and Livade, the Sappers hope to make it difficult to lay mines in the future.

The United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) is supported by a multinational KFOR army of around 40,000 troops, of which 4,000 are British. An important role for UNMIK and KFOR is to build infrastructure to protect the outnumbered Serbs. This is intended both to encourage the existing Serb community to stay, and to encourage Serbian refugees to return.

Operation Trojan is a key part of this strategy, and Sappers from the 26 Engineer Regiment are busy building camps, observation posts and Northern Ireland style watchtowers in Serb areas throughout the central part of Kosovo.

'Our mission is to maintain a secure environment for UNMIK to start up the country, ' says Lieutenant Colonel Jacques Lemay, who commands 26 Engineer Regiment.

Landmines are seen as a major threat. Some 25,000 mines remain uncleared in Kosovo, and have caused 23 deaths and 168 injuries since June last year. This is in addition to the 47 deaths and 101 injuries caused by the remaining 19,000 unexploded 'bomblets' from cluster bombs dropped by NATO during the three month air campaign last year.

The road improvement, funded by a £1.6M grant from the Dutch government, has involved recycling areas of existing pavement to provide a capping layer, then laying a 500mm layer of limestone sub-base to create a 4m wide two lane road. The requirement for stone is so great that 26 Regiment has developed its own quarry near Pristina, which produces 500m 3of 0-60mm material per day.

The stone is being laid and compacted by 70 Gurkha Field Support Squadron with its own large fleet of plant. Local contractors will overlay this with 100m of asphalt to give a military 25t category road with a 10 year design life. A local asphalt mix design will be used to cope with the extremes of temperature, ranging from +40degreesC to -40degreesC.

An additional headache for 26 Engineer Regiment is the potential for security problems while laying the blacktop. The only available asphalting contractors are ethnic Albanian, who require armed guards to protect them while working in the Serb crescent. Site works have also been hampered by less violent security problems. 'Anything left on site soon gets stolen, ' says Captain James Gladwin, second in command of 70 Gurkha Field Support squadron.

The Sappers are hurrying to get the blacktop done before the weather gets too cold. During winter they will concentrate on widening a 4.5km long dirt 'goat track' between the villages of Preoce and Lepina, and laying sub-base ready for surfacing in the spring.

As well as building infrastructure to improve the security and safety of the locals, the Sappers are 'winterising' their MASH style tented camps near Serbia into more permanent and comfortable bases. Tents and sandbags are being replaced with heated modular buildings and gabion walls, using technology and lessons learned from Northern Ireland.

Military helicopter pads, including a permanent new helipad near Pristina, are also being built using crushed stone foundations from the quarry. This has been hurriedly completed to comply with an ultimatum for British helicopters to vacate the airport or risk seizure by the Russian forces, who captured the airport in June last year, ahead of NATO, and still retain control.

These urgent tasks have highlighted that the Royal Engineers, like most sectors of the construction industry, are suffering from a skills shortage.

'We desperately need plant operators and electricians, ' says Major Mick Berrill, officer commanding 38 Squadron Royal Engineers. 'Any Territorial Army or Reservists who are sent out on six month postings with these skills are in great demand.'

The army increasingly relies on the 75,000 TA and reservists to fill skills gaps, and is keen to show employers the mutual benefits of allowing staff in the TA to undertake a three or six month posting in Kosovo. 'We can provide first class technical and leadership training, ' says Major Berrill.

Currently KFOR is preparing for the long cold Kosovan winter.

Over 60, 000 people are expected to return to Pristina before Christmas, adding to the 300,000 who have already flooded into the city from the hills. To ease overcrowding, rural infrastructure must be maintained to encourage people to stay on their farms. For 26 Engineer Regiment a key task will be snow clearance and road gritting.

With UNMIK predicting that Kosovo will require £850M for basic reconstruction, the Royal Engineers are clearly here for the long term. 'We aren't going anywhere soon, ' says Lieutenant Colonel Lemay. 'KFOR will be here for at least another five years'.

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