US soldier held in probe of Kosovo girl's murder

PRISTINA, Serbia, Jan 16, 2000 -- (Reuters) U.S. forces in eastern Kosovo said on Saturday they had detained one of their own soldiers in connection with the murder of a local girl, believed to have been in her early teens.

General Klaus Reinhardt, the commander of the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force, pledged the investigation into the killing would be pursued with vigor. He expressed his condolences to the girl's family and all the people of Kosovo.

"I say this because the very reason that KFOR came here was to stop violence," the German army general said.

"To discover that one of our own members may have been involved in the ultimate act of violence - murder - fills me with horror and anger," he said in a statement.

KFOR soldiers found the girl's body on Thursday evening near the town of Vitina in southeastern Kosovo, U.S. forces said. She was believed to have been of ethnic Albanian origin and aged around 14, military sources said.

An autopsy would determine whether the girl had been abused before she was killed, a KFOR spokesman said. No charges had yet been brought against the soldier, whose identity would not be released for the moment, KFOR said.

The case is the first time a KFOR soldier has been known to be the suspect in such a serious crime.

The 50,000-strong multi-national force began deploying in Kosovo after 11 weeks of NATO bombing drove out Serb forces who had waged a campaign of terror against the province's ethnic Albanian majority.

Brigadier General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of the U.S.-led military sector, met local community leaders in Vitina after news of the soldier's detention had been released.

"This is an isolated, individual criminal act that will be dealt with appropriately," Sanchez told them, according to a statement. "KFOR is here to protect all the people of Kosovo. This is a very tragic event....No one is above the law and I hope that you understand this."

Sanchez said the soldier was being held at Camp Bondsteel, the main base for U.S. forces in Kosovo. He pledged to release more information to the people of Vitina as soon as he could.

"We want to keep you and the people accurately informed, and ask that you help us keep false rumours from spreading and making the situation worse," he told the community leaders.

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