Nato spokesman Jamie Shea admitted yesterday a "law and order vacuum" has been created by a long delay in deploying UN civil administrators and an expected 3,000-strong police force. But he insisted the war-torn province was not yet out of control.
Western diplomats in Pristina say gangs, some of which are suspected of having links to the Kosovo Liberation Army, are taking apartments, real estate, businesses, fuel supplies and cars from Kosovo Albanians and Serbs, who have little recourse to justice.
A British K-For official in Pristina said: "UNMIK (the UN interim administration) is unprepared to take over law and order. In the absence of police and legitimate rules, a vacuum has occurred.
"That vacuum is being filled by organised crime. Albanian gangs are inviting Kosovo Serbs to leave their apartments. Now Kosovo Albanians are being invited to leave."
Because so many Kosovo Albanians had identity documents and licence plates seized by Serb forces, and because there are now no border controls, many gangs are moving in unhampered by the 37,000 K-For soldiers.
While the UN plans to deploy 3,125 international police, only 400 have arrived. The police commander has decided not to put troops into active service until he has enough to patrol entire areas. Currently, the commander says, his most urgent need is for border police to keep out more gangs and smugglers.
The German K-For commander, General Fritz von Korff, said his soldiers stop cars to search for weapons and frequently come across smuggled items, such as massive amounts of cigarettes, particularly at the Morina-Kukes border crossing. But Nato's mandate does not permit his soldiers to confiscate any item except weapons, and the smugglers are permitted into Kosovo with their loot if it is believed they are from the province.
One of the biggest problems involves gangs showing up at homes to claim ownership and threatening to beat those who refuse to move out.
No statistics are available on the number of property seizures, but anecdotal evidence suggests a growing problem. And, while initially it seemed that seizures were ethnically motivated, and targeted at Kosovo Serbs in the capital Pristina, increasingly Kosovo Albanians are victims as well.
Kosovo's provisional prime minister, KLA leader Hashim Thaci, 31, denied his organisation was behind seizures of Kosovo Serb apartments. "We have no such information. We know there are those who have left Kosovo, but we have not forced anybody to leave, or put pressure on them to leave. That is propaganda. Any one who has not committed crimes is free to live in Kosovo."
According to a UN police commander, who asked not to be identified, intelligence suggests there are three main types of organised criminal gangs in Kosovo: Russian, Albanian, and those linked to the KLA. Some analysts suggest that the seized apartments and other looted goods are the KLA's way of paying debts to arms procurers, funders and important soldiers and their relatives.
UN officials deny the organisation's slowness is responsible for Kosovo's growing crime problem. One senior UN commander said, unlike K-For, which has been preparing for a Kosovo mission since February, the UN wasn't told it was to take over civilian operations in Kosovo until June.
An American involved in the international police force warned that by the time the UN police are deployed, criminal gangs will already have their networks set up, and will be as much a menace for Kosovo's Albanian population as they are for the Serbs.Reuse content