CHRISTIAN JENNINGS'French connection' concern grows in Kosovo
Mitrovica- NATO peacekeepers and the United Nations are running a hands-off, no-arrest policy in Mitrovica against Serb war crimes suspects and Albanian hardliners across Kosovo, senior international sources alleged yesterday.
The prime suspect under investigation by KFOR and UN police in Mitrovica is Oliver Ivanovic, a local leader who styles himself as the unelected mayor of the Serb-dominated north of the city.
"There is an intelligence operation being run on Ivanovic," claimed one senior international official with extensive operational experience of Mitrovica, who spoke to The Scotsman on strict condition of anonymity.
"Its about who hes being backed by, whos paying him, the war crimes hes been involved in, and his history in the war. "Why hes not being touched is because its political. UNMIK [the United Nations in Kosovo] and KFOR say it doesnt happen. Theres so much paperwork thats been sat on."
The Albanian mayor of southern Mitrovica, Bajram Rexhepi, has claimed Ivanovic is behind organised Serb paramilitary activity in northern Mitrovica, where 12 Serbs and Albanians have died and more than 100 have been injured, including NATO peacekeepers, since the beginning of February.
Ivanovic denies links to Serb paramilitaries operating in the region during the anti-Kosovar Albanian repression by Serbs that lasted until NATO peacekeepers entered the province in June last year.
He claims he does no more than organise local security structures made up of civilians, who assure the security of the Serb population.
Known as "bridge-keepers", these gangs effectively control access to northern Mitrovica, keeping in touch via hand-held radios, and acting as a nucleus for anti-Albanian violence. They also assault and harass journalists believed to have a pro-Albanian agenda.
International officials have also said that since January, the UN has run what is in effect a no-arrest policy for Serbs in Mitrovica. NATO and the UN are desperate to calm the ethnic violence in Mitrovica, a town perceived as a litmus test for the success or failure of NATOs 40,000-strong Kosovo-Force, (KFOR).
However, the international officials criticised French NATO peacekeepers for alleged co-operation with Ivanovics bridge-keepers.
"There is no doubt that there exists a direct link between Ivanovic and the French," said the senior official, who had studied intelligence reports detailing Ivanovics history.
"No arrests have been made against Serbs for incidents in which they were involved," he said, adding that after a multiple hand-grenade attack this week in northern Mitrovica that injured 16 French soldiers, Ivanovics men physically prevented UN police from interviewing Serb victims in hospital.
"The French have stood by and watched while UN vehicles were attacked, they have refused police access to at least two crime scenes, and they dont know how to do joint patrols on the ground," the official added.
"The co-operation between KFOR and UNMIK in Mitrovica is very close," said the UN spokeswoman, Susan Manuel, yesterday in the regional capital, Pristina.
But Elizabeth Griffin from Amnesty International, who on Monday will release a highly critical report of UN and NATO responses to the violence in Mitrovica, said: "The co-operation between KFOR and UNMIK in Mitrovica is appalling."
Ms Griffin also claimed leading Albanian political leaders such as Hacim Thaci are also considered untouchable by the UN and NATO. "I saw an UNMIK police report which directly implicates Thaci with an investigation into illegal tax collection in Ferozaj," she said. "The report was effectively stopped."
"We have so much paperwork on the TMK [former KLA] in Mitrovica that has been stopped from Pristina," the senior official said.
Former KLA fighters are believed by NATO to have been involved in shooting incidents in Mitrovica, including one in February in which French troops shot dead two suspected snipers in northern Mitrovica who had opened fire on them.
Throughout the wars in the former Yugoslavia the French have been accused of pro-Serb bias, most recently for their failure to arrest indicted war criminals in the sector they control in Bosnia.