The United Nations and NATO failed to protect minorities in Kosovo when ethnic Albanians went on a rampage in March, a leading human rights organization has said.
Not doing enough?
In a 66-page report, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said the failure of security institutions in Kosovo to protect the minorities was "beyond dispute."
"In community after community, Serbs and other minorities ... were left for hours at the mercy of hostile ethnic Albanians rioters, waiting for KFOR and UNMIK to rescue them," the report said.
Nineteen people were killed and over 900 injured, including international police and NATO peacekeepers (KFOR), as mobs of ethnic Albanians attacked minority enclaves mostly inhabited by Serbs.
No coordinated response
The report, released on Monday, slammed the UN mission (UNMIK) and KFOR for not sharing information and claimed part of the responsibility could be attributed to KFOR troops for engaging in traditional military terms "rather than in more appropriate policing terms."
A Kosovo police officer stands guard near damaged cars and apartments in a mainly Serb neighborhood in the Kosovo capital Pristina
The report condemned KFOR and UNMIK for lacking a coordinated response while "in numerous cases minorities under attack were left entirely unprotected and at the mercy of the rioters."
KFOR, UNMIK reject criticism
However, KFOR spokesman said the force did not agree with the report's conclusions.
"It came late and it is a report looking from an armchair perspective and not one of a soldier looking at thousands of protesters approaching him," KFOR spokesman, Horst Pieper told AFP.
"KFOR did the outmost to de-escalate the confrontation and saved many lives," he said. "We think the strategy all over was successful."
German soldiers of the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force in Kosovo guard the UNMIK United Nation Mission
In a statement, UNMIK denied the accusations that it failed to address the situation. It said the report was a "broad-brush condemnation of UNMIK and KFOR and does not show an understanding of the extent of the challenge this violence posed to security forces."
"The international community appears to be in absolute denial about its own failures in Kosovo," the report said.
It specifically accused French peacekeepers serving with KFOR of not helping besieged Serbs in the northern village of Svinjare "even though their main base was just a few hundred meters (yards) away."
Smoke billows from Serbian Orthodox Church which was set ablaze by ethnic Albanian extremists in the northern Kosovo city of Kosovska Mitrovica
"The ethnic Albanian crowd had walked right past the base on its way to burning down the village," the report said. "In the western town of Prizren, German KFOR failed to deploy to protect the Serb population and the many historic Serbian Orthodox Churches."
At least 29 churches and monasteries were burned while over 800 houses were torched.
NATO rushed some 2,000 troops to quell the violence in addition to some 17,000 troops it had stationed in the province.
Kosovo has been under UN and NATO control since 1999 when a NATO bombing campaign forced Serb troops under nationalist strongman Slobodan Milosevic to end a crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.
The March violence dealt a devastating blow to UNMIK's efforts to reconcile the province's embittered rival communities.
Kosovo Serbs return
UN officials and a Serbian organization meanwhile announced plans to start returning Kosovo Serbs that had fled the province in 1999.
The plan is to bring back 300 families by the end of this year. Should the resettlement be successful, 1,200 families could following in 2005, Dragisa Krstovic, the leader of a group called Povratak, which means "return" in Serbian, told AP newsagency. In 1999, more than 200,000 Serbs left Kosovo because they feared revenge attacks from ethnic Albanians. Only about 10,000 have returned so far.