Peacekeepers 'stood by as Kosovo mob burnt homes'

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The Independent Online

Nato forces and United Nations police in Kosovo were responsible for a "catastrophic" failure to protect minority communities during the upsurge of violence earlier this year, a report claimed yesterday.

Nato forces and United Nations police in Kosovo were responsible for a "catastrophic" failure to protect minority communities during the upsurge of violence earlier this year, a report claimed yesterday.

Human Rights Watch said there was a "near complete collapse" of security, allowing gangs of Albanians to drive Serbs, Roma and Ashkali (Albanian-speaking Roma) from their homes in the Yugoslav province.

The report, based on interviews with officials and victims, describes how, time after time, heavily armed soldiers of the Nato-led K-For stayed in their barracks as Serb homes were burnt and looted. Relief, when it did arrive, was often too little, too late, leading to a new status quo in which displaced communities found it impossible to return home.

In the village of Svinjare, a mob of armed Albanians marched past the main French K-For base before burning all of the 137 Serbian homes. The Nato troops stayed in their barracks watching buildings just a few hundred metres from their base go up in flames.

In nearby Vucitrn, French K-For soldiers failed to intervene while Albanian gangs set fire to 69 Ashkali homes, just 10 minutes' drive from the military base.

At Prizren, in the south-east, German K-For troops failed to protect the Serb population and the historic Orthodox churches and monasteries despite repeated and frantic calls for assistance from German UN police in the town.

The entire village of Belo Polje was burnt to the ground by the mob. This time it was Italian K-For troops who locked the gates of an adjacent base.

Even in the capital, Pristina, Serbian civilians had to barricade themselves into the upper floor of an apartment block, while Albanian gunmen shot out the windows from the streets and looted the flats below. It took K-For and the UN police more than six hours to come to their aid.

On 17 March, the report said, 33 separate riots broke out over a period of 48 hours involving more than 50,000 Albanians. Nineteen people were killed, 4,100 people were displaced from their homes, and at least 550 homes and 27 Orthodox churches were destroyed.

Among the catalysts for the violence were reports that a group of Serbs with dogs had driven three Albanian boys to their deaths in a river; the blocking of the main road from Pristina to Skopje by Serbs after the shooting of a Serb teenager; and a march by veterans of the disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army protesting at the arrest of former KLA leaders on war crimes charges.

Human Rights Watch concluded: "This was the biggest test for Nato and the United Nations in Kosovo since 1999, when minorities were forced from their homes as the international community looked on.

"They failed the test. In too many cases, Nato peacekeepers locked the gates to their bases and watched as Serb homes burnt."

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