Kosovo's strange saga of politician and police

By Andrew Gray

As if they didn't have enough to worry about with continuing violence, frequent power cuts and freezing weather, the people of Kosovo and international officials have been preoccupied recently by a strange saga.

Tales of mysterious police raids and dark allegations of disinformation and conspiracy involving one of the territory's top political leaders, Hashim Thaqi, have kept international authorities busy and hit the front pages of local newspapers.

Thaqi, prime minister of a self-declared provisional government and a former guerrilla commander, alleges officers from Kosovo's United Nations police force attempted to enter his home, his office, and his party headquarters last week.

The police, which is investigating the complaints, says it has found no record so far of any such operations.

But the top two international officials in Kosovo have been so alarmed by the affair, and the potential damage it could do to a fledgling political process, they felt it necessary at the weekend to issue a public apology to Thaqi.

"If any incorrect behavior by the international security authorities is discovered, appropriate measures will be taken," peacekeeping commander General Klaus Reinhardt and U.N. mission chief Bernard Kouchner assured Thaqi in a statement.

They also stressed he was not the target of any investigation by international authorities.

In an interview with Reuters this week, Thaqi dismissed the apology as worthless unless the United Nations-led administration, UNMIK, and the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force tracked down the people who carried out the operations.

Brother's Home Searched

He sees the attempted raids as part of a wider campaign against him and his political party. Party officials have alleged international police may have been guided by local trainee officers driven by political motives.

"The worst thing is that UNMIK does not have control over its own police officers," said Thaqi, a 30-year-old former politics student who led the Kosovo Liberation Army before making the transition to impeccably-dressed post-war politician.

"I'm sure it's not UNMIK and KFOR who are behind these actions, just people out of their control," he said.

Events began innocuously enough on Tuesday of last week. A team of British KFOR troops and UNMIK police searched a house in the capital Pristina where they had seen celebratory gunfire during New Year's Eve festivities a few days earlier.

The house belonged to a brother of Thaqi, who was detained for illegal possession of weapons, the United Nations said.

It was widely reported that police found foreign currency worth around one million German marks ($526,600) in the house.

Thaqi insisted this was a "complete lie" and said he was considering taking U.N. officials to court for spreading disinformation. An amount of money was found but it was far smaller and all legally obtained, he said.

"We have to keep money at home here because there are no banks," he added.

Bodyguard Also Detained

In what police insist was an event unrelated to the raid on the house, one of Thaqi's bodyguards was arrested the next day during a search of a Pristina cafe, near the provisional government headquarters, for carrying a weapon.

The United Nations says that, following standard procedure, police went to the bodyguard's car to look for more weapons but officers did not try to enter the government building.

Thaqi's guards insist police did try to enter and that they also attempted to gain access to the offices of his Party for Democratic Progress of Kosovo, in another part of central Pristina, at the same time. Police have no record of this.

Police released the bodyguard after a few hours, when it was established he had a permit to carry a weapon but it had been handed in to KFOR for renewal.

That evening, Thaqi says, police tried to enter the grounds of his home. As with the other alleged attempts to gain access, they were rebuffed by guards. Once again, police have no record of the incident.

"We are looking into this and, at present, we don't have any information about any UNMIK police officers approaching the residence," police deputy commissioner Michael Jorsback said.

Conspiracy Theories Abound

Unsurprisingly in a part of the world where conspiracy theories are part of everyday life, there is no shortage of possible explanations for the affair circulating in Pristina.

They range from the belief that Thaqi's party is at least exaggerating events to gain public sympathy to a suspicion the U.N. police has been infiltrated by sworn enemies of Thaqi and the now disbanded KLA.

The KLA waged a guerrilla campaign against Serb rule in Kosovo for more than a year, before NATO bombing drove out Serb-dominated Yugoslav forces from the territory last June.

Somewhere between the extreme theories lies the possibility UNMIK police officers, who come from 42 different countries, blundered by not realizing who they were dealing with and could now be keeping quiet to avoid embarrassment.

Whatever the truth of the matter, international officials engaged in the delicate task of setting up a joint administration with local politicians including Thaqi will be relieved to hear the affair should not hamper their progress.

Thaqi insists he will continue to cooperate with UNMIK and KFOR, dismisses reports he threatened to quit politics over the incidents, and says he will not mention them in public again.

"This is the first and the last time I will talk about this with journalists," he told Reuters.

The affair has, however, raised a sensitive question for police and peacekeepers: How do they avoid upsetting political leaders unnecessarily in what remains a volatile place without placing some people above the law?

International sources say top officials have recently emphasized the need to act with care when it comes to VIPs.

"Everyone here is equal under the law. There are no specific treatments for anyone of different categories," Jorsback, a Swedish officer, told reporters this week.

"But when it comes to operational procedures, of course we have to take certain considerations in different cases," he acknowledged.

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