Nato general hopes GIs will return to Kosovo townBy STEVEN ERLANGER
February 28, 2000
PRISTINA, Kosovo, Feb. 27 -- Because of the risk to the soldiers, the Pentagon has refused to allow American troops to return to northern Mitrovica, the section dominated by Serbs in the divided town that has become a flash point of ethnic tension in Kosovo, senior United Nations and Western officials say.
Gen. Klaus Reinhardt of Germany, the commander of the NATO-led peacekeeping forces in Kosovo known as KFOR, said negotiations were continuing.
Asked directly in an interview here today whether the Americans had refused to send troops back to northern Mitrovica, General Reinhardt paused for a time and then said: "Your question comes a couple of days too early. We're working on this question."
General Reinhardt has pushed hard to internationalize the KFOR troops in Mitrovica, which is in the French zone of Kosovo. When American troops first entered the north to search for weapons a week ago, angry Serbs hurled snowballs, stones and bricks at them, and they finally withdrew. The soldiers were criticized for aggressive tactics such as breaking down doors.
The general said that because he did not want the Serbs to dictate who would patrol northern Mitrovica, he sent American and German troops back into the north a few days later, but at 5 A.M., to do a weapons search.
But officials here say the Americans, who are in charge of the tense eastern sector of Kosovo, do not want to send troops back to Mitrovica. General Reinhardt said many countries in the peacekeeping force that had refused his requests to help patrol Mitrovica in November and December were now willing to take part after violence this month killed at least 11 people, most of them Albanian.
"Today a lot of the restrictions on me that were in place in December are gone," the general said, praising the Swedes, Finns and Danes in particular for their willingness to take on the risks of Mitrovica. "We'll see when the Americans go back there."
Despite the Pentagon's reluctance, officials say that Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright has been on the telephone almost daily with Bernard Kouchner, the head of the United Nations mission here, urging a solution to the Mitrovica issue.
General Reinhardt also said he had pressed the Americans hard in the last month to do a better job of securing Kosovo's eastern border with the rest of Serbia. The goal there is to prevent armed Albanians, some of them in uniform, from attacking targets inside Serbia proper, especially in the three-mile-wide demilitarized zone where Serbian troops are not allowed to enter, although the police are.
Asked why such armed groups -- offshoots of the supposedly dismantled Kosovo Liberation Army -- were allowed to enter Serbia from Kosovo, the general bristled.
"We're not allowing it," he said firmly, noting that KFOR had arrested six armed people on Saturday trying to go across the border. "I told people to arrest anyone who tries to go out of our sector into eastern Kosovo. We close down the border as much as possible. We recognized that something was brewing, and my instructions were to seal that border more hermetically before there is a real crisis."
American troops have now built watchtowers along the border with Serbia, near the towns of Bujanovac, Presevo and Medvedja, which have majority Albanian populations and which more radical Albanians refer to as "eastern Kosovo."
Armed Albanians wearing uniforms with shoulder patches like those of the K.L.A., but representing an organization dubbed the Liberation Army of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja, have been seen in the demilitarized zone. In response, the government of Yugoslavia put four more militarized police units into the area, alarming NATO officials.
The area is also known as an entry point for drug smuggling, and General Reinhardt said he was still asking capitals for specialized officers in drug interdiction. The United Nations police, badly under strength, has also requested officers with such expertise, but in vain.
The official Yugoslav press agency, Tanjug, reported today that a Serbian policeman and an ethnic Albanian guerrilla were killed on Saturday night and three Serb policemen were wounded in a shootout near the village of Konculj, when Albanians ambushed a police patrol with automatic weapons and hand grenades.
It was the third recent attack against the police in the area. The Serbian police said a bomb damaged the courthouse in Bujanovac on Friday night, in an attack they blamed on "Albanian terrorists."
Western officials have accused Belgrade of trying to destabilize Kosovo, while the Yugoslavs accuse KFOR of not stopping the infiltration of armed Albanians from Kosovo.
General Reinhardt said the Kosovo peacekeeping force was now operating more intensely to check the province's northern border with Serbia proper, above Mitrovica, to prevent the flow of arms and undercover police or intelligence officers into Kosovo from Serbia.
Danish and Belgian battalions are checking vehicles more vigorously, he said, and last week the peacekeepers began to use a computer at a checkpoint to register who goes in and out. Although Kosovo is formally part of Yugoslavia, KFOR says it has the right to deny entrance to suspicious people or to deport them.
"Normally the military does not do such work," General Reinhardt said. "But there is no point in complaining. This is an area of big concern for me, and I have sent officers with specialized training to assist in this job, and I have sent my deputy to supervise, and I'm feeling very comfortable" about the security of northern Kosovo.
The general said he had been geting most of the money and personnel he needed for his military operation, but that the NATO governments "that decided to get us here" were less supportive of the United Nations civilian administration here.
In particular, he said, the failure to send promised funding for the civilian budget and to send promised international police officers has meant that his troops must do a great deal more policing than they want to do, or are trained or equipped to do. With only 2,000 international police officers here, he said, considerably fewer than 800 are on the streets on any given day.
"We're missing 3,000 police officers," said the general, who has initiated joint patrols by his troops with the police. "But there's no use complaining. It won't change the situation, so I have to make the best out of it."
The lack of international prosecutors and judges also annoys him, and he acknowledged the reluctance of Albanian prosecutors and judges to convict other Albanians.
Last week, he said, two Serbs were killed and KFOR soldiers immediately arrested suspects, having tracked them with dogs, and found the weapons used. "They turned these guys over to the police and the prosecutor, and the prosecutor released them the same day," he said. "How can we enforce law and order if this takes place?"
General Reinhardt admitted with a degree of embarrassment that someone in Mitrovica had stolen his personal revolver while Albanians were cheering him last Monday, as he sought to defuse a large Albanian demonstration. Normally the weapon is secured to his holster on a cable, but the day before, the ring attaching the pistol and the cable broke, he said.
"People were touching me and pulling me and shaking my hands, and it just went," he said. "It happened. So what? For me the key thing was to prevent the crowd from becoming violent, and when we told them to go home, they went."