Int. Herald Tribune
Amid inquiry, Kosovo town is estranged from its Nato protectors

By R. Jeffrey Smith

Paris, Saturday, January 29, 2000

VITINA, Yugoslavia - Baki Ramadani slipped on the ice that covered almost every street in this city in eastern Kosovo three weeks ago and accidentally jostled an American soldier standing guard at the NATO military base.

Challenged to explain himself, Mr. Ramadani signaled with his hands because he is unable to speak or hear, as medical documents he keeps in his breast pocket made clear.

His efforts to explain failed and he quickly found himself knocked to the ground and kicked in the head, according to Mr. Ramadani's parents and two brothers. They said they saw the bruises and got a description later from Mr. Ramadani, in sign language, and from a friend of Mr. Ramadani's who was arrested and detained briefly when he tried to intervene.

Army investigators who flew to Kosovo from a U.S. base in Germany began an inquiry of the Jan. 6 incident this past week, along with several other allegations by ethnic Albanians of mistreatment by U.S. troops, including beatings, harassment and inappropriate body searches of women.

The results of the investigation will not be released for at least a week, but Western officials say the goal of the inquiry is to examine what might have gone awry with the U.S. peacekeeping mission in this ethnically mixed and politically volatile city, estranging some soldiers from the population they came here to protect.

It is the first large-scale inquiry since NATO peacekeepers arrived last June after the allied air campaign against Yugoslavia and the withdrawal of Belgrade's forces from Kosovo.

Already, a U.S. Army unit, Company A of the 3d Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry, which was assigned here last September, has been redeployed to another city, a month sooner than normal.

Most of the tensions, some Western officials say, have been provoked by former members of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army, who control the city in large measure and have resisted sharing power and influence with either NATO troops or UN administrators.

The officials suggest that the accusations have been concocted largely to discredit the U.S. troops, who recently arrested prominent ethnic Albanians in connection with terrorism acts.

Before the war, Vitina was dominated by Serbs. Today, 90 percent of its residents are ethnic Albanians as a result of the postwar expulsion of Serbs. The 500 to 800 Serbs still here face a persistent threat of grenade attacks, house-burnings, kidnappings or murder by ethnic Albanian hard-liners, according to local and Western officials.

For some residents, ''the war is not over,'' said Daut Xhemajli, president of the municipal government and a former official of the KLA, which waged a guerrilla war to win Kosovo's independence from Serbia, the dominant republic of Yugoslavia.

Mirroring the attitude toward NATO forces throughout Kosovo, U.S. troops arrived here to find enormous goodwill. As Mr. Ramadani's father, Saqif, said, ''we consider the Americans our biggest friends'' because of Washington's tough policy against the Serb government.

He said the family ''didn't want to make anything of this.''

But the alleged beating, along with other accusations of misconduct, became a major topic of protest after U.S. troops arrested Xhauit Hasani, a prominent ethnic Albanian who had commanded a KLA combat unit.

Some army officers say that ethnic Albanians are orchestrating the criticism to gain the former commander's release from military custody.

At the same time, some of the misconduct accusations appear to have validity, according to army sources who said they could not provide details.

Moreover, the sources acknowledge that the arrest in Vitina on Jan. 16 of Staff Sergeant Frank Ronghi on charges of raping and killing an 11-year-old ethnic Albanian girl had undermined the morale and reputation of Company A, even though local ethnic Albanians said they held only the individual soldier responsible.

Many of the accusations against U.S. troops stem from Company A's police activities on Jan. 6, a weekly market day during which hundreds of villagers streamed into the city. On that day, according to allegations by a number of residents, soldiers manhandled as many as eight people and improperly patted some female ethnic Albanians while searching for weapons in the crowd.

U.S. troops arrested Mr. Hasani on a warrant issued by Macedonian police, who charged him with murdering a Macedonian police officer last year.

But the Americans also suspected Mr. Hasani and others of violence against ethnic Albanians who bought houses or businesses from Serbs and also of a recent grenade attack on a Serbian-owned café.

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