Ex-KLA members arrested in gang probe

PRISTINA, Aug 25, 2000 -- (Reuters) Ten people, most of them former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, have been arrested in an operation against a gang suspected of smuggling, extortion and murder, peacekeepers said on Thursday.

Peacekeepers also seized four AK-47 semi-automatic rifles, one automatic rifle, a sniper rifle and more than DEM 50,000, said a spokesman for the Italian Carabinieri special police contingent, which led the operation.

The spokesman, Captain Paolo Nardelli, said officers had searched more than 10 houses in the operation, which took place on Wednesday in southeastern Kosovo, near the Macedonian border.

"The operation was against a gang that is very active there," he told Reuters.

The KLA, an ethnic Albanian guerrilla group which fought against Serb rule, officially disbanded last year after a NATO bombing campaign drove out Serb forces and Kosovo became a de facto international protectorate.

International officials have voiced suspicions that former KLA fighters are involved in organized crime. Former KLA leaders have insisted they are not behind any illegal activity, while not excluding that some individuals may have turned to crime.

Wednesday's operation also yielded a KLA uniform, Nardelli said, and one of the arrested men was a member of the Kosovo Protection Corps, the civilian successor to the KLA which has a mandate to help with reconstruction and disaster relief.

"We arrested 10 persons, most of them former UCK members," said Nardelli, using the Albanian initials of the KLA.

"All the men were arrested for illegal possession of weapons and rounds and criminal association," he added.

Files on four more men suspected of illegal activity, including a member of the province's fledgling local police service, had been submitted to prosecutors, he said.

Nardelli said the gang was suspected of involvement in three homicides between December 1999 and January this year. Investigators believed the sniper rifle they had discovered could be linked to the killings, he said.

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