KFOR Troops Under Fire

French troops in Mitrovica are accused of turning their backs on victims of Serb rioting.

KFOR Troops Under Fire

French troops in Mitrovica are accused of turning their backs on victims of Serb rioting.

Friday, 11 February, 2000

United Nations police officers and local Albanian residents have claimed French KFOR troops failed to respond to requests for assistance during Serb rioting in the ethnically divided Kosovan town of Mitrovica last week.

The rioting, which left six Albanians and two Turks dead, was sparked by attacks on a café and a UN bus in which two Serbs died.

"French KFOR could have helped us - that probably could have saved some lives," said one police officer. "I don't blame the French troops themselves, but somebody gave an order that was a wrong as hell, and unfortunately some people died because of that order."

Following the grenade attack on a café full of Serb youngsters, which injured 15 people, a crowd of several hundred angry Serbs gathered in Lole Ribare Street around apartment buildings housing some Albanian families.

UN police officers and Albanians were besieged in one building. French troops nearby were called to help, but reportedly retreated back to their command post.

An Albanian eyewitness said a gang of young Serb men then rampaged through his building. They broke into his flat and demanded that he and his family leave the area. He then heard an explosion and gunshots upstairs and later discovered the body of an elderly neighbour in her apartment. Eventually, two KFOR soldiers arrived and the Serbs left the building.

The French commander in the town, Colonel Jean Phillipe Bernard, dismissed claims his troops had been asked to intervene by UN police.

UN police logbooks, however, record two requests for assistance made to French KFOR troops. Bernard said his troops were deployed to contain the violence and prevent the rioting spreading south, a task they accomplished. Furthermore, he said, French troops evacuated 120 people that evening.

On Thursday KFOR Commander General Klaus Reinhardt said he had no doubt the French soldiers "did their best in very difficult circumstances. And, since the press contains mirror image complaints against KFOR from both sides, our response must at least have been balanced."

A nightly curfew, meanwhile, is still in force across the town. KFOR spokesman Lieutenant Commander Philip Anido said on Tuesday that the security situation in Mitrovica was calm and German and Italian troops had joined existing French and Danish forces to bolster the KFOR security operation there. On Friday a further contingent of 140 British Royal Green Jacket soldiers also arrived in the town.

While Albanians appeared to welcome the arrival of the British troops, Serb spokesman Oliver Ivanovic, a member of the Serbian National Council in Mitrovica, was less enthusiastic. "In the last few months, the British didn't help protect Serbs," he said, pointing out that the Serb population in Pristina, patrolled by British forces, had declined from 40,000 to only a few hundred.

Ivanovic said he had called on Reinhardt to step up efforts to bring Albanian extremists under control.

The recent upsurge in violence has revived Serb calls for the partition of Kosovo. According to Radio B92 in Belgrade, Ivanovic said he expected the northern part of Mitrovica and northern Kosovo to be granted special status with a high level of autonomy.

Albanian leaders, meanwhile, have accused "Serb paramilitary terrorists" of sparking the violence in and around Mitrovica. Unsubstantiated reports in the Albanian media claimed six busloads of Serb paramilitaries had arrived in Mitrovica last week.

The newly inaugurated Joint Administrative Council appealed to both sides to "to refrain from further violence and vengeful acts" and to co-operate with KFOR and the UN police.

The intervention, however, prompted local leaders to accuse international officials of incompetence. Hashim Thaci, former head of the interim Kosovo government and of the Kosovo Liberation Army, said both KFOR and the UN police were guilty of negligence in Mitrovica.

Llazar Semini is IWPR Project Manager in Kosovo.

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