Kosovo commander sees potential for 'hot June'

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, May 28, 2000 -- (Reuters) The French general who has spent the last four months trying to keep the peace in the Kosovo hotspot Mitrovica predicts a potentially difficult first month for his successor.

Brigadier-General Pierre de Saqui de Sannes, who on Friday completed his term as commander of Kosovo's French-led northern military sector, also defended his decision not to implement fully a high-security zone in the ethnically divided city.

"June will be an extremely important month because there is a succession of dates which are potentially difficult," the 50-year-old general told Reuters in an interview.

He cited the renewal of the mandates of the UN mission in Kosovo and the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force, widely regarded as a formality by diplomats, as one event likely to raise tensions among the Serb community next month.

Many members of Kosovo's Serb minority believe the mandate will not be renewed and that Serb security forces driven out by last year's NATO bombing will then return to Kosovo. "There's a risk of a great disappointment there," the general said.

He said the start of war crimes trials in Mitrovica and the likely return of some Serbs who fled Kosovo last year, fearing attacks by majority ethnic Albanians angry at years of Serb repression, could also heighten enmity between the communities.

"That's a certain number of important events and if we manage to overcome them, that could really open up some good perspectives," said de Saqui de Sannes, who handed over command to French Brigadier-General Jean-Louis Sublet.

De Saqui de Sannes underwent a baptism of fire at the start of his four-month rotation in charge of the sector in February. He was faced with the worst outbreaks of violence in Kosovo since NATO and the UN took control last June.

A rocket attack on a bus killed two Serbs and wounded several others on his second day in charge. The attack was followed the next day by rioting in the Serb-dominated north of Mitrovica in which at least nine ethnic Albanians were killed.


De Saqui de Sannes has also seen several of his soldiers wounded in gunbattles and riots and has faced criticism from other Western countries, where officials and commentators have suggested the French are not robust enough in handling unrest.

Critics have cited the general's decision not to remove the so-called bridgewatchers, a self-styled Serb security force which checks people crossing into the Serb sector, from their base at a cafe in front of the city's main bridge.

De Saqui de Sannes confirmed German General Klaus Reinhardt, the KFOR commander who completed his term last month, had issued an order for the "Dolce Vita" cafe to be closed down and the bridgewatchers to be removed from their positions.

The measure was to be part of establishing a high-security "confidence zone" in which both ethnic groups could move freely.

"I had the order to do it if I thought it right," de Saqui de Sannes said. "But I thought doing it would mean taking a step that would bring with it such a level of violence that the consequences would be disastrous."

He acknowledged his relationship with Reinhardt's headquarters was not as good as with the current team headed by Spanish Lieutenant-General Juan Ortuno.

"It's true there wasn't the same relationship. But that was perhaps also due to the context," he said. "It was after all a very hectic time, there were many things to do."

Accounts from KFOR officers and other international sources indicate de Saqui de Sannes may be playing down his problems with Reinhardt. Some officials have even suggested they cast doubt on the efficiency of a multi-national command structure.

One officer said the German was "tearing his hair out" on several occasions over the Frenchman. But de Saqui de Sannes said Reinhardt came to understand his point of view and clearly believes recent calm in Mitrovica has proved him right.

"If General Reinhardt had considered that I disobeyed his orders, he could have asked for me to be replaced. That was his right," he noted simply.

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