Commander defends French troops in Kosovo

PRISTINA, Feb 11, 2000 -- (Reuters) The commander of NATO-led peackeepers in Kosovo strongly defended French troops on Thursday from allegations they performed poorly.

German General Klaus Reinhardt spoke out after a string of local protests and press articles critical of the French response to violence in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica a week ago. Eight ethnic Albanians were killed and more than 20 people, mainly Serbs, were wounded.

In Paris, French Defense Ministry officials rejected allegations that their troops had acted unprofessionally and failed to protect ethnic Albanians from Serb attacks.

Reinhardt branded some accusations absurd and said he was confident the French troops in the northern Kosovo city had done their best in difficult conditions.

"The troops of all 36 nations that have volunteered for this force stand shoulder to shoulder as brothers-in-arms and I have full confidence in every one of them," Reinhardt said. "A criticism of one is a criticism of us all."

Ethnic Albanians have alleged French troops did not do enough to protect them in Serb-dominated northern Mitrovica during the violence, one of the worst outbreaks since the NATO-led KFOR force arrived in Kosovo last June.

Police reported among critics

Several press articles, including one in the Washington Post, have also mentioned dissatisfaction among Kosovo's United Nations police service about the French response, adding to Albanian suspicions that traditional French ties with Serbia made the soldiers biased towards Serbs.

Reinhardt said the French had faced a particularly difficult situation last week as it was a new contingent's first night on the streets. The fact both ethnic communities had complained about the French suggested they had acted impartially, he added.

"I have no doubt that they 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," he said in a statement.

The clashes followed a rocket attack on a bus carrying Serbs - and escorted by French troops - in the Mitrovica area the previous day which killed two people.

The exact sequence of events on the chaotic Thursday night remains the subject of dispute. But it appears clear that a grenade was thrown into a Serb bar, wounding about 15 people, and that hundreds of Serbs went on a violent rampage.

Albanians were shot dead in the street or in their homes, grenades were thrown into apartments and vehicles belonging to international agencies were set on fire.

"Send us Americans"

"We don't trust the French, send us Americans," cried a headline in Epoka e Re, one of the newspapers catering for the ethnic Albanian majority in the southern Yugoslav province.

Another newspaper carried a front-page cartoon of a French soldier standing nonchalantly with his hands on his hips while a Serb paramilitary takes aim with a rifle behind him.

The Washington Post said U.N. policemen interviewed in Mitrovica, who asked their names not be published because of pressure from French area commanders, accused French troops of failing to rescue ethnic Albanians being beaten by mobs and refusing to admit them later to a French army hospital.

French Army Colonel Henri Pelissier gave a different account. "Our troops rescued 120 Albanian civilians that night and took them to safety," he told a Paris news briefing.

Pelissier denied France had refused to treat wounded Albanians, saying the French took them to a Moroccan military hospital better equipped than the French installation.

"There is no favoritism by France. Our troops act scrupulously according to NATO guidelines," French Defense Ministry spokesman Jean-Francois Bureau said in Paris.

Bureau said some of the incidents reported by the Washington Post were "factually correct but lacked the background that would have explained what was happening".

KFOR said on Thursday that Mitrovica, which has been under a night curfew since the violence, was calm overnight.

The peacekeepers reported another attempt to fire anti-tank rockets at a bus of Serbs, however. Two rockets were fired at the bus near the central town of Lipljan on Wednesday afternoon but missed their target, a spokesman said.

Original article