RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports from Kosovo that looting is common even as NATO forces increase security operations in the province and returning refugees begin reconstructing their lives.
Urosevac, Yugoslavia; 25 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Looting and theft continue in Kosovo despite assurances by international officials that international peacekeeping troops are busy rebuilding security. And tension remains a fact of life in the province.
Our correspondent in Kosovo watched yesterday as U.S. Army soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division arrested six ethnic Albanian men in Urosevac, about 35 kilometers south of Pristina. The men were taken away in plastic handcuffs to a former Serb interior ministry police station after they were caught carrying stolen jewelry, furniture and other items from shops in the gutted city center.
U.S. Army Corporal Patrick Fry said that the six men would be released after KFOR -- the international peacekeeping force in Kosovo -- recorded their names. He said evidence in their cases also was being documented for an eventual trial.
But for now, there are no courts operating in Urosevac. It remains unclear when judicial procedures will start again. It also is unclear whether trials for such cases will be heard by the UN's Interim Administration Mission or by judges appointed by the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), which has declared its own provisional government in the province.
Nevertheless, reports of yesterday's arrests quickly spread across Urosevac's ethnic-Albanian community. Residents are now aware that NATO peacekeepers from the U.S. are actively trying to fill the vacuum created when the Serb civil administration fled the town earlier this month
The arrests may not have done much to calm the Serb community of Urosevac, however. An hour after the incident, two Serb pensioners stood in front of KFOR's local headquarters in a futile attempt to file a formal complaint with U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Joe Anderson about looting in Serb neighborhoods. They did not manage to get a meeting with the busy officer. Instead, they were reassured by U.S. soldiers outside of Anderson's headquarters that KFOR is doing all it can to offer protection to Serbs and ethnic Albanians alike.
The Serb pensioners spoke with RFE/RL:
"We were just asking them to protect our apartments. Thieves are all around here. Just half an hour ago, three men were trying to break down a door [at one home in our neighborhood]. What can we do? [The KFOR soldiers] said they are taking measures to patrol, but patrols are rare in the part of the city where the inhabitants are mostly Serbs. We only see a patrol every two or three hours."
The Serb pensioners said they didn't expect revenge attacks by returning ethnic Albanians refugees because, in their view, they hadn't done anything to warrant revenge. Nevertheless, as the two men talked with our reporters in Urosevac's burned-out central square, nearly every passing ethnic Albanian scowled at them angrily.
Clearly, tensions between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Urosevac are high. The two pensioners refused to give even their first names, saying they feared they would be recognized, and possibly attacked, by ethnic Albanians in the town who might hear a broadcast of the interview.
One of the pensioners said it will take time for the current anger to subside.
"In the future [it will be possible for Serbs and ethnic Albanians to coexist here]. But it's going to take a long time for everything to settle back down in its proper place."
NATO Secretary General Javier Solana was in Kosovo's provincial capital Pristina yesterday and sought to reassure both ethnic Serb and Albanian civilians.
"The KFOR forces are now working hard to end the violence that for many dark months was part of everyday life in Kosovo. They will do their very best to ensure the safety and security of everyone in Kosovo regardless of their ethnic, religious or cultural background. I repeat, that there is no need for anyone to leave Kosovo. KFOR will look after you. Stay and give peace a chance."
And indeed, there are some signs that life is starting to return to normal in Urosevac. Most of the shops on the city's main street have been either burned or looted. But residents have set up tables on the sidewalks, where they sell cigarettes, vegetables, cooking oil and, in some cases, even eggs. The street traders say they are bringing the food staples into Kosovo from Macedonia, about 40 kilometers to the south.
In the city's open marketplace, amid haggling buyers and sellers, one can also find some of the materials that will be needed to help rebuild the gutted community -- items such as cleaning brushes, wall plaster and paint. But there is a shortage of construction materials like wood, glass, concrete and roof tiles.
Towns along the highway between Pristina and Skopje appear to be returning to a semblance of order much faster than in other parts of Kosovo. In the southwest, Italian KFOR peacekeepers have encouraged the UCK to help fill a power vacuum in some villages. This week's demilitarization agreement signed by KFOR Commanding General Michael Jackson and UCK's political leader Hashim Thachi promises that "special consideration" will be given to UCK fighters when civilian administrations and police forces are re-established.
In villages near Pec, the UCK already has established police forces and a municipal court. UCK fighters also are serving as administrators at a health clinic, a grain store, a weapons factory and an agricultural cooperative in the Italian KFOR sector.
Tensions between Serbs and ethnic Albanians are reported to be the worst in the northern city of Mitrovica, where French peacekeepers have not been as aggressive as British or U.S. troops in disarming civilians. Armed Serbs have blocked the only remaining bridge across the Iber River, effectively cutting off the northern part of Mitrovica from the south. To the chagrin of ethnic Albanians, the Serb-controlled northern part of Mitrovica contains the city's main hospital, food warehouses and other key buildings.
The commander of NATO's forces in Europe, General Wesley Clark, said in Pristina yesterday that KFOR will n-o-t allow Mitrovica to become a divided city like East and West Berlin during the Cold War. Clark described the armed Serbs in Mitrovica as "paramilitaries" and pledged that French troops would take what he called "appropriate action" there unless the Serbs surrender their weapons.
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"There will be no partition in Mitrovica or in any other of these cities here. Paramilitaries are not permitted under the military technical agreement with KFOR. And they've either got to stop being paramilitaries or they've got to leave. KFOR has the power to enforce the military technical agreement and it will do so."
Like the U.S. troops in the south, British forces are aggressively patrolling Kosovo's provincial capital of Pristina to stop looting and to prevent violence between Serbs and ethnic Albanians. But even with frequent helicopter patrols hovering over central Pristina, the British peacekeepers are unable to keep the lawlessness completely in check.