K-For 'stood back' in MitrovicaBy Nicholas Wood
Wednesday, 9 February, 2000
K-For troops have been accused of failing to intervene in violence that shook the Kosovan town of Mitrovica late last week.
Seven people were killed in revenge attacks following an explosion in a Serb cafe.
Crowds ran through the district beating up people in the street and attacking them in their homes.
UN police said that, while French troops intervened in several critical areas, elsewhere they stood back as Albanians were slaughtered.
K-For has strongly denied the accusations.
'Tried to help'
In a small graveyard on the edge of town, Mitrovica's dead were laid to rest.
The deceased were all victims of three hours of unrelenting violence, which took place last Thursday.
Witnesses said groups of men with walkie-talkies went from apartment to apartment, breaking doors down, throwing grenades, and beating people.
Among the dead was 47-year-old mother, Nerimane Gjaka. For two hours, her family came under attack in their apartment from Serbs throwing grenades and firing guns.
UN police and K-For troops witnessed the attack.
According to Nerimane's husband Gani, neither group seemed able to intervene, and she died later from her wounds.
Mr Gjaka said: "They tried to help us, but there were very few of them. They wanted to help, but they couldn't get through because of the Serbs.
"But that's no excuse - both K-For and the UN have enough troops and means to help people in these situations."
Troops 'pulled back'
He was not alone in his criticism of K-For.
UN policemen backed up his testimony. Not only did they accuse French K-For troops of failing to intervene, but said they had pulled back when most needed.
One policeman, who wished to remain anonymous, tried to go the aid of fellow officers, under attack in an apartment building.
"We ran into a crowd of 1,000 to 1,500 Serbs. The French K-For were standing on the corner. We asked for assistance, and we were going to go in and get our officers. We looked back and they were gone.
"They all turned around and marched straight back into their command post, and left the three or four officers there.. and that's the last I saw of the French K-For."
According to policemen from the same station, this was not an isolated incident.
On another occasion, they said a policeman approached a row of armoured personnel carriers, and asked for their support.
The commanding officer drew his vehicles back from the site. The French army said the APCs were withdrawn to make way for Danish reinforcements.
Eventually, help did come from Danish K-For troops, but not until at least one-and-a-half hours after the initial attack on the cafe.
"We had no help from French K-For, the only help we had was from a French medical team. The Danish K-For finally came, thank God, to assist us. The Danish troops were superb," the policeman said.
"But to the best of my knowledge, I have not seen any French help us on anything."
Most of the killing took place in Lole Ribare Street and to the north. The critical time period appeared to be between 2130 local time last Thursday - roughly the time of explosion - and 2300, the estimated arrival time of Danish troops.
The French commander in the area, Colonel Jean Phillipe Bernard, denied his troops had been requested to intervene, in spite of the fact that two demands were logged in the police record books.
He also said his primary concern was to protect people to the south of the street, where a high number of Albanians and Bosniaks (Muslim Slavs) were concentrated. French troops were also positioned at either end of the road.
In between, a crowd was able to run riot for up to three hours.
Standard anti-riot tools, such as tear gas, were not used - even though these are used on a daily basis to disperse crowds of up to 2,000 at the bridges dividing Mitrovica.
The colonel said that such tactics would have been useless.
"To maintain order, there are certain techniques, such as the use of tear gas. But this only applies to organised crowds, who have an aim. For a mob, this isn't necessary.
"Our soldiers know how to impose themselves and take control of the crowd, and if necessary fire into the air."
But these efforts failed to disperse the crowds.
Danes evacuated residents
When the Danes did arrive in Lole Ribare Street, they began to help Unmik police extract people from apartments. It was not as a result of orders from French K-For headquarters.
The commander of Danish troops on the ground says his orders were to go to reinforce troops guarding the bridges further south, half a kilometre away.
His troops intervened of their own initiative, not at the orders of General Saqui de Sannes, the French officer in charge of overall operations.
Once again, however, they were not in sufficient numbers to control the situation and disperse the mob.
Oliver Ivanovic, one of the key leaders of the Serb community in northern Mitrovica, says he warned K-For commanders two weeks ago of a possible increase in violence.
He said that, while troops coped well with the initial explosion in the cafe, they could not control what happened afterwards.
"It wasn't enough, they were very engaged to block the area around the cafe, but I suppose they hadn't enough soldiers for events that happened after."
In their defence, the French say they evacuated over 120 people from their homes that night, and prevented the violence from moving southwards.
They strongly deny that they refused to help the 30 UN police officers on the ground at the time.
The police remain convinced they were left high and dry.
The policeman said: "Unmik police officers - and that includes the French gendarmerie - did the best they could to protect lives. Unfortunately we did not have the manpower to do this.
"The French K-For could have helped us - that probably could have saved some lives. But I don't know where the command came from.
"I don't blame the French troops themselves, but somebody gave an order that was as wrong as hell, and unfortunately some people died because of that order."