Security fears in Kosovo, Nato raids Saudi house
PRISTINA, Apr 3, 2000 -- (Reuters) NATO forces imposed unprecedented security around the alliance headquarters and U.S. diplomatic offices in Pristina on Sunday amid fears that a guerrilla attack had been planned.
Heavily armed Italian carabinieri and other troops closed off streets, searched cars and questioned civilians after raiding a house in the area occupied until last week by a Saudi Arabian relief organization.
"People in the house had obviously been observing our (NATO) facilities and U.S. facilities," a NATO source told Reuters. "And they had obviously left in a hurry."
Officials of the Saudi charity reacted with incredulity to news of the search of the house and poured scorn on U.S. media reports linking its staff to Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, wanted by U.S. authorities for his alleged role in bomb attacks on U.S. embassies.
"We don't understand this," said Faisal Alshami, assistant director in Pristina of the Saudi Joint Relief Committee for Kosovo, one of the myriad international aid organizations based in the Kosovo capital.
"We chose that house eight months ago before NATO or anyone else moved into the area," he said, speaking at the charity's offices a couple of miles (kilometers) away across Pristina.
Far from leaving Kosovo in a hurry in the face of NATO investigations, the charity workers who had lived there had simply moved to cheaper apartments not far away to save money, he said.
Alshami said he had heard nothing about the affair until told about it by Reuters reporters.
"No one has approached us officially about this at all. We cooperate on relief projects with KFOR (the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo) and UNMIK (the UN administration in Kosovo)."
SAUDIS SOUGHT KFOR PROTECTION
The charity did not even have armed guards to protect itself from repeated burglaries in lawless Kosovo and had asked KFOR and UNMIK to provide it with protection, without success, Alshami said.
The Stars and Stripes, a newspaper run by and for the U.S. military, said in a report on the security scare that the Joint Relief Committee was suspected on having links to Bin Laden. It said former members of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) had staked out the charity for months and had reported the movements of its staff to U.S. officials.
A British bomb disposal team on Sunday investigated a car bearing stickers of the Saudi charity which was parked near the Pristina offices of the Kosovo Protection Corps, the successor organization to the KLA, witnesses said.
Staff of the Saudi organization in Pristina laughed out loud at suggestions of links to Bin Laden. "We are a group of well-known charities supported by the Saudi Arabian government," said one. "But people react strangely to Saudi Arabians."
The Kosovo Albanian owners of the large Pristina house searched by Italian forces on Saturday - still flying tattered Saudi national flags - and neighbors described the Saudi tenants as polite and unremarkable.
Albania has been identified in the past as a possible safe haven for anti-American guerrilla groups and has a barely-policed border with Kosovo.
Bin Laden is wanted for alleged connections with the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 in which more than 200 people were killed.