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Yugoslavia: KFOR Soldiers Frustrated Over Endless Patrols

NATO troops in Kosovo are becomingly increasingly frustrated by the endless looting patrols they must endure and the hours it takes to fill in the forms to hold suspected criminals. This will all change when United Nations police arrive and take over the civilian patrols, but that may still be several days or weeks away. Our correspondent in Kosovo filed this first-hand account of the soldiers' problems, including a ride with French troops in their zone of Kosovo.

Pristina, 1 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- British and French KFOR peacekeepers in Kosovo are becoming increasingly frustrated by the seemingly endless task of protecting the province from looting and arson. The soldiers say they're anxious for a more permanent United Nations civil administration to be established . The civil administration will operate in parallel with KFOR forces.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright says about 3,000 civilian police will work in Kosovo under the UN Security resolution authorizing the administration. But members of that police force will not arrive in Kosovo until the appointment of a tenured UN chief for the province. For now, there are no courts in Kosovo and the backlog of criminal cases that are being documented by KFOR troops is growing rapidly.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was due to meet in New York later yesterday with senior officials from 16 countries and three international organizations. The meeting was aimed at resolving the political difficulties that have delayed a decision on naming the chief UN administrator for Kosovo.

Brazilian Sergio Vieira de Mello now heads a temporary UN administration based in Kosovo's capital Pristina. But until agreement is reached on a long-term administrative leader, the UN's law-enforcement role in Kosovo will remain negligible.

Lt. Col. Robin Hodges, a spokesman for British forces in the province, says the national contingent in each KFOR sector will continue to enforce its own national laws until the UN police arrive. That means British soldiers will continue to face a great deal of bureaucracy merely to hold criminal suspects.

With thousands of looting cases every day, soldiers have to spend hours each day on paperwork. Often, says Hodges, they simply release the thieves:

"As far as arrests are concerned, the military police can hold somebody for four hours. After four hours, they have to be able to convince a senior officer that they've got enough evidence to continue the inquiry for up to 24 hours or 48 hours. The senior officer has to sign a formal certificate about that."

Hodges say holding a suspect for more than seven days requires written authorization from the commander of British forces. As of June 29, the commander had authorized only seven long-term detentions, and two involved Serbs accused of mass murders that occurred before British forces arrived. The other five suspects are being held in connection with individual killings that have taken place since Serb forces withdrew from the province earlier his month.

Hodges explains the details of British bureaucratic procedure:

"In each case, the Royal Military Police interview those people, open a file and take down all the records and the witness statements and evidence of the person's identity and so on. Then, a decision is made whether to release them there and then at the four-hour point, or the 24-hour point or 48 hours. All those files will eventually be handed over to the UN police force when it is established here. But until such time that the UN police force arrives, the British force, and in particular, the Royal Military Police of the British force, are responsible for law and order within the British [sector]."

In the French sector of northern Kosovo, the limitation on the powers of soldiers to arrest suspects has made their patrols ludicrous.

Our correspondent spent more than two hours with a group of French soldiers who were trying to prevent ethnic Albanians from looting the smoldering ruins of a Roma (Gypsy) neighborhood on the south side of Mitrovica. He reports that nearly every building in a six-block area had been destroyed by angry ethnic Albanians in the past week. Beneath the smoke of more than 20 freshly lit fires, children picked through the rubble for dishes, clothing and shoes. When the soldiers caught one boy, they took a bag from him that was filled with cooking utensils and told him to run away quickly.

About 10 minutes later, a few blocks away, the soldiers chased down a group of women with large bags filled with looted clothing. During the pursuit, one of the women tripped over the bag and rubbed her back as if she had been injured.

French Soldier: "Go on, get out of here."

Looter: "Something is hurting me here."

French Soldier: "Yes, me too. I have a headache."

Looter: "Nothing is here. I have nothing here."

French Soldier: "Good. So, you will go now? Get out of here -- oh, you are tired? Terrible."

After the woman had been chased away, the young boy was sighted again. This time he was struggling to roll a refrigerator away in a wheelbarrow. The French soldiers knocked over the wheelbarrow and chased the boy away for the second time. One peacekeeper said that he had no power to arrest children under the age of 15.

It soon became apparent that the looters were also aware of the limited authority of the French peacekeepers. During the afternoon, our correspondent saw dozens of children running in and out of the devastated neighborhood. They were carrying whatever they could find of value across a field to a place where a group of adults waited for them with cars and wagons. Entire families were working together to loot the neighborhood.

As our correspondent left Mitrovica, the last thing he saw was the boy looter again. This time, the youngster was smiling as he rode out of town on the back of a horse-drawn cart together with his family and their new refrigerator.