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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 April 2007, 11:34 GMT 12:34 UK
Nato's 24-hour beat in Kosovo
By Patrick Jackson
BBC News, North Kosovo

In the fourth of our series on peacekeeping, the BBC joined French troops from the Kosovo Force (K-For) as they patrol isolated Serb and Muslim communities in the north.

Foreign Legion soldier and jeep outside the Jovic home
French troops can get to the Jovic house within minutes

An enclave can range from thousands of people to several hundred, and there are times when it means just one family.

An ageing farmer, his spouse and their dogs, barking blue murder as the jeeps come jolting up a rutted back road to their house on the hillside.

"We call it the Kosovo alarm system," jokes one of the French Foreign Legionnaires, gesturing to two ferocious hounds leaping on their chains in the Jovic family's garden.

A visit from a journalist and army press officers appears to be a novelty for Vojislav and his wife, who have made up the entire Serb population of Svinjare since March 2004, when 250 Serbs lived here with their 200 ethnic Albanian neighbours.

They are more used to Lt Christophe Doncieux and a private soldier, coming in from Camp Belvedere a kilometre (0.6 miles) away in their jeep, heavy machine-gun rigged to the side.

The couple can phone the base but still the patrol goes out three times daily, day or night, varying the times, and there are about 500 other soldiers in Belvedere to back them up.

"We're glad of them," says Mr Jovic, a grin lighting up his wizened face as he leans on his stick. "They have always been here when we needed their help."

Asked what help they needed, he looks away and just says he has no problems now.

The riot

In March 2004, the last period of major ethnic violence in Kosovo, Albanian rioters came out from the town of Mitrovica, 3km (1.8 miles) to the north, to burn the houses and kill the livestock of the village's Serbs.

BBC map

K-For evacuated the community but did not stop the destruction of property. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has described the events as a catastrophic failure, by K-For and the UN administration (Unmik), to protect minorities.

"At that period, the political situation was more complex and the political will to intervene was less forcefully expressed," says the French Foreign Legion's Maj Philippe de la Presle.

Since then, K-For has adopted a "task force concept" under which troops can be rapidly moved around to counter emergencies as they maintain a "safe and secure environment".

When we drive around Svinjare, the major points out dozens of spanking new houses along one side of the road, all empty.

They are Serb homes rebuilt with European Union funds, he says, but their owners have not moved back to live, appearing only occasionally to tend their land.

One of the Legion's tasks, the French major adds, is to scare off burglars breaking into these untenanted houses to steal fittings.

The legionnaires do four-month tours of duty with K-For's French Battalion, which guards seven enclaves over an area of 100 sq km (38.6 sq miles).

Urban island

Another hill, another enclave. This time the backdrop is urban - the Serb stronghold of north Mitrovica, where many of Svinjare's Serbs now live as refugees.

KOSOVO FORCE (K-FOR)
Sign at K-For's Task Force North headquarters
Supports UN administration (Unmik) but is commanded by Nato
Current strength: 16,000
Mainly Nato but contributors have ranged from Argentina to Ukraine, and Mongolia sent a platoon in 2006
Troops are allocated to five task forces, Centre, North, South, East and West

We have come up here with a foot patrol of French Navy Troops, armed with assault rifles and a plastic-bullet gun.

On this street in the back hills live a handful of Albanian and Bosnian Muslim families.

At the height of Nato's war with Slobodan Milosevic in the spring of 1999, they fled to Montenegro or Albania, fearing revenge attacks by Serbs.

"My family wasn't attacked but petrol bombs were thrown at my house and the next day I decided to take my family and go," says a middle-aged Albanian man, who does not want to give his name.

They walked to Albania where they barely made ends meet as refugees, and eventually they walked back, finding their house still intact apart from flood damage from taps that had been left to run.

The man says he has many Serb friends in Mitrovica and is not afraid to walk about the town.

However, others feel unsafe outside the immediate area and use a special bus which connects the enclave with the town centre.

Ready and aware

Kosovo Albanians often regard the French with suspicion, seeing them as historically sympathetic towards Serbia.

Lt Col Reiner Grossmann
Nato will stay here as long as... the international community sees it as a proper means to put out this conflict
Lt Col Reiner Grossmann
deputy spokesman for K-For

"British K-For, American K-For or German K-For are much more professional," says one man in south Mitrovica, who does not wish to be named.

Many of the Foreign Legion's troops are from Eastern Europe, including the ex-Yugoslavia, making local languages and cultures less of a barrier but also raising doubts about their impartiality.

Lt Col Reiner Grossmann, deputy spokesman for K-For, brushes talk of bias aside with clear exasperation.

"Statistical surveys show K-For is now the most credible institution here in Kosovo," the German officer says at HQ in Pristina.

"Every soldier has to be aware and ready to operate in any part of Kosovo."

With Albanian expectations of independence high and scant sign of Serbian acquiescence, how long will this force of 16,000 stay on?

"It's not the time to speculate but I can imagine that in 2008, Nato in co-operation with the EU will come up with a new planning," Lt Col Grossmann says.

"Nato will stay here as long as it is needed, and as long as the international community sees it as a proper means to put out this conflict."


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