Five U.S. senators and their wives landed in four helicopters at this sprawling U.S. base in Kosovo Tuesday to dine with U.S. peacekeepers and thank them for their work in the U.N.-run province.
The senators and their spouses sat with soldiers from their respective states around tables in the spacious mess hall, located at the heart of Camp Bondsteel in eastern Kosovo, home to most of the 1,800 U.S. soldiers, serving with the NATO-led peacekeeping force here.
The U.S. troops are part of the NATO-led 18,000-strong force, deployed since June 1999 following alliance's war aimed at stopping the crackdown by Serb troops on independence-seeking ethnic Albanians.
Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Sen. Mike DeWine and Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio and Sen. Michael Enzi of Wyoming enjoyed an ordinary lunch of grilled fish, chicken and roasted potatoes, as they chatted with the soldiers about their everyday work.
Following lunch, they were briefed by senior U.S. officers about the situation in this troubled and ethnically tense province. Later, they headed to Pristina, the province's capital, on Black Hawk helicopters.
Grassley said that the visit was intended to show their "appreciation to American military people for what they do to defend freedom and liberty."
Voinovich said that another reason for their visit was to bring themselves up to date with what is happening here.
"This is also to let people know that you care for what they are doing," he said.
U.S. officers told the delegation that if the situation in Kosovo improves in 2005, the overall number of NATO-led troops in Kosovo would be reduced to less than 10,000.
But Brig. Gen. Tod J. Carmony, the top U.S. commander in Kosovo, responding to questions from senators, cautioned against complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from the province.
Earlier this year, NATO outlined plans to bring down the number of its troops, citing improvement in the ethnically tense province.
However, that plan was shelved after ethnic Albanian mobs targeted minority Serbs and their property in two days of violence that left 19 people dead and more than 900 injured. The mid-March violence sent 4,000 people -- mostly Serbs -- fleeing for safety.