2 US military choppers help snowbound Montenegro

PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) ? Two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters dropped food, medicine and livestock feed on Saturday to people stranded in the mountains of Montenegro by up to 11.5 feet (3.5 meters) of snow.

And for those being helped it was great to see the U.S. military on a peace mission. That’s because the last time citizens had seen U.S. military aircraft flying overhead in 1999, they were bombing sections of their country, then known as Yugoslavia.

“The Americans are good people,” said Darko Kukovic as he sat in one of the Black Hawks on Saturday, guiding its pilots to the village of Starce in central Montenegro, where his elderly parents have been stranded by the snow for two months. “We should forget about the past and focus on the future. My parents would starve or freeze to death without their help.”

The delivery of aid, which began Wednesday, was going to the remote villages hit by Montenegro’s heaviest snowfall in 60 years, and it also was rewarding for the U.S. soldiers, despite the mission’s challenges.

“We just got back from Afghanistan in July,” pilot Capt. Terry Hill of Kellyville, Oklahoma, said aboard one of the Black Hawks. “The flying there was intense, but it’s intense in a different way” in Montenegro.

“There we were getting shot at. Here it’s helping the Montenegrin people,” he told two Associated Press reporters traveling aboard one of the flights. “As you could see, we were just hovering at that almost vertical mountain beside us.”

The deep snow and steep mountain slopes were making it difficult to gauge the helicopters’ height above the ground. The pilots could not land in the snow, so they had to make tricky hovering maneuvers in order to drop their supplies to the stranded residents below.

Both Black Hawks raced through pristine river canyons and past snow-covered mountain peaks, their twin turbine engines screaming as the pilots banked sharply to avoid flying into craggy hillsides.

On Feb. 13, Montenegro declared a state of emergency as four people died and hundreds were being evacuated from the snowed in villages. The only way to reach the mountainous areas was via aircraft, so NATO sent in helicopters loaded with supplies.

Americans, Croats, Slovenes and Greeks flew in aboard the choppers in the first such NATO mission in Montenegro since it split from Serbia in 2006. Given what had happened during the violent breakup of Serb-led Yugoslavia in the 1990s, not everyone was happy about the rescue effort.

The American presence triggered anger among Serb nationalists in Montenegro who say the 72-day U.S.-led air war in Yugoslavia must not be forgotten.

However, public opinion polls have indicated that a majority of Montenegrins now want to join the Western military alliance and leave the past behind.

Montenegro has applied to join NATO, and the government hopes it will be granted membership when the alliance meets in Chicago in May. Toward that end, Montenegro’s tiny army has sent an infantry platoon to join the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, along with staff officers and military police trainers.

Montenegro is next in line to join the 28-nation alliance, but NATO officials have said the country has not yet met all the technical requirements for membership.

Whatever happens, U.S. Army Col. Robert Levalley of South Kingstown, Rhode Island, said he was glad to take part in the mission and that he hopes it benefited everyone.

“Whether they had indifference or feelings from the past,” there were no problems with the local population or with Montenegrin officers and soldiers, he said. “From the minute we’ve landed here until today, the relationship building, the team building” has been great.


AP correspondent Slobodan Lekic contributed to this report from Brussels.