updated 7/26/2004 1:59:42 PM ET 2004-07-26T17:59:42

A leading human rights organization blamed NATO and U.N. police Monday for failing “catastrophically” to protect minorities in Kosovo during ethnic violence earlier this year.

Among other charges, the New York-based Human Rights Watch accused NATO-led peacekeepers of locking their gates and standing by as ethnic Albanians burned Serb houses just outside their bases during the mid-March riots that left 19 people dead and 900 injured.

“The NATO-led Kosovo Force and U.N. international police failed catastrophically to protect minorities during the widespread rioting,” the group said in a 66-page report entitled “’Failure to Protect: Anti-Minority Violence in Kosovo, March 2004.”

The report also accused the international community in Kosovo of being in “absolute denial about its own failures.”

“While international actors have been universally and accurately critical of Kosovo Albanian leadership during and after the crisis, the dismal performance of the international community has escaped similar critical scrutiny,” the report said.

'Armchair position' criticized
A NATO spokesman in Kosovo said the report does not do justice to peacekeepers’ attempts to normalize the situation.

“These reports coming from (an) armchair position do not pay any respect to the efforts of the soldiers,” said Col. Horst Pieper of the NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo. He said the peacekeepers “quickly stabilized the situation within hours during the riots and prevented ... civil war.”

“The soldiers ... did their utmost to de-escalate the situation and to save many lives,” he said.

NATO-led peacekeepers said after the riots that they chose to save people’s lives instead of buildings. Over 1,200 of those fleeing the rampage found temporary refuge inside their military bases.

Mobs of ethnic Albanians targeted Serbs and other minorities in a two-day rampage in mid-March, triggered by the deaths of two children allegedly chased into a river by Serbs. Beyond the dead and injured, 4,000 people — most of them Serbs — were displaced, and at least 600 homes and Orthodox Christian churches were burned.

The March violence was the worst since the end of the 1998-99 war, which led to U.N. protectorate status for Kosovo after a NATO air war stopped Serbia’s crackdown on independence-seeking ethnic Albanians. Some 18,000 NATO-led peacekeepers are in the province working alongside some 10,000 U.N. and local police officers.

'Failed the test'
The events raised questions about peacekeepers’ ability to prevent or quell violence, and represented a dramatic setback for international officials intent on reconciling the bitterly divided ethnic Albanian and Serb communities.

“This was the biggest security test for NATO and the United Nations in Kosovo since 1999, when minorities were forced from their homes as the international community looked on,” said Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division, in a statement.

“But they failed the test,” she said. “In too many cases, NATO peacekeepers locked the gates to their bases, and watched as Serb homes burned.”

According to the report, in at least four instances the peacekeepers were confined in their bases, without crowd-control equipment, as crowds of ethnic Albanians walked past them and set houses, churches and monasteries ablaze.

In the northern village of Svinjare, French NATO soldiers stayed inside their base as 137 Serb homes were burned and neighboring ethnic Albanian homes left untouched, said the report.

In another instance, German soldiers in the southern town of Prizren “failed to deploy to protect the Serb population and its historic Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries,” despite calls for assistance from their German compatriots at the U.N. police in the same town, the organization charged.

The village of Belo Polje in western Kosovo, adjacent to the main Italian military base, was burned to the ground, the report said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments