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Kosovo Peacekeepers Try to Rebuild Reputation

Force hopes major improvements in training and intelligence will ensure violence on scale of the March riots never reoccurs.
By Daniel Skoglund

French general Yves de Kermabon assumed command of NATO peacekeeping operations in Kosovo last week, vowing to boost the troops’ capacity to handle violence and improve intelligence.

Coupled with a media campaign calling for Kosovars to renew their trust in KFOR, the force is clearly hoping to rebuild a reputation that took a battering over its handling of the March riots.

“The situation has remained fragile, so it is undoubtedly necessary to change the way the force acts, to be more mobile, more reactive and to improve intelligence, “ said Kermambon, who replaces German general Holger Kammerhoff as head of the 18,000-strong force.

The changeover comes at a sensitive time for Kosovo, shortly before October parliamentary elections and only six months after the two-day wave of violence that left 19 dead and more than 4,000 displaced.

The current command is likely to be in place as talks open on Kosovo’s final status, expected sometime next year.

A number of NGOs and monitoring bodies, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, and the International Crisis Group, ICG, have recently criticised the force for reacting too slowly to events and for lacking internal cohesion.

Now, however, both KFOR and the UNMIK police force claim to have made major improvements in the way they can respond to violent eruptions, such as the March riots.

“We have started practising anti-riot control with bigger units than before,” Mattias Ardin, planning officer at the Multinational Brigade Center, told IWPR. “We are also training alongside UNMIK police.”

Speaking at Camp Slim Lines, KFOR headquarters in Kosovo, on the northern outskirts of Pristina, Ardin said important lessons had been learnt from the March violence

“March showed the need for training bigger units, combining units from different nations, to see how battalions from different nations can work and cooperate,” Ardin said.

The Multinational Brigade Center is responsible for the area around Pristina, including the Serb enclaves to the south and west of the city.

During the spring violence, the Swedish force stationed here, together with UNMIK and the local Kosovo police, battled unsuccessfully against Albanian rioters in the Serb village of Caglavica, where homes were torched on the northern fringe of the village.

KFOR and UNMIK now say that they are conducting larger exercises on a regular basis to ensure that they are better prepared next time. Indeed, a big riot-control exercise was carried out at Slim Lines on September 2 - a day after Kermabon took charge. Few observers doubt more unrest is on the way.

Attending the transfer ceremony from German to French command, Michèle Alliot-Marie, France's defence minister, said, “We're entering a period of maximum risk. The situation is calm but extremely fragile.”

Another handicap, hampering efforts to stop Albanian attacks on ethnic minorities in March, were differences in the “rules of engagement” between the various national KFOR contingents.

“The Swedish troops are allowed to use tear gas but not rubber bullets,” explained Captain Bjoern Rydbeck, deputy commander of the Swedish Rifles. The Czechs, on the other hand, Ardin said, “have passed laws that allow Czech troops [based in Prizren] to use rubber bullets.”

UNMIK says it is conducting more anti-riot training for the police; equipping them with better anti-riot gear and introducing a new command structure; and integrating KFOR, UNMIK and the local police in cases of large-scale violence.

The international police have to tread a fine line between appearing tougher on law and order after the March riots and their continuing need to consider volatile local sensitivities, however.

The recent use of UN anti-riot police against demonstrators who were blocking two major roads in Pristina was widely criticised.

UNMIK police arrested 31 Albanian protesters on August 30, the International Day of the Disappeared, after they blocked the streets, demanding that the authorities speed up resolution of the fate of thousands of Albanians who vanished during the war five years ago.

As pictures of the arrests were broadcast at length on the local evening television news, some UN police personnel privately conceded the action may have been a mistake.

Neeraj Singh, UNMIK spokesperson, suggested that in future “the law may not be very vigorously enforced, after taking into account public sensitivities and the potential of further public disorder that removal of a blockade might have”.

Meanwhile, KFOR and UNMIK are both working on improving their riot intelligence data. Both are attempting to develop a more systematised analysis of the kind of “triggers” that have the potential to end in popular unrest.

Malcolm Ashby, UNMIK police spokesperson, said much of this was merely common sense. “If persons from one ethnic group attack another, and the others then take revenge of some sort – then you know the tension has risen. Now that’s not really rocket science, is it?” he asked.

Singh adds that the March riots were “an eye opener”. He went on, “People were aware frustrations existed with the political situation and the economy, but no one thought it could lead to widespread violence as it did.

“The lesson is that security institutions here have to be prepared for the worst.”

In spite of all the talk of changes, many Kosovo Serbs, who were on the receiving end of violence in March, say they have lost most of their faith in the foreigners sent to protect them.

“We are not sure if we can trust them [KFOR] if something like March happens again,” said Jelica Markovic, 63, whose house in Caglavica was burned by an Albanian mob.

Other Serbs say that if nothing else, the March events encouraged the Serbs to think more proactively about their defence in times of trouble.

One Serb man in Gracanica said some of his community recognised it was up to them to protect their village, for at least a couple of hours, in case of violence, before expecting KFOR to come to the rescue.

Daniel Skoglund is a Swedish freelance journalist based in Sarajevo.

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