U.N. probe said to criticize March Kosovo raid

UNITED NATIONS Fri Aug 1, 2008 11:55pm BST

French NATO peacekeeping vehicles burn during clashes with Serb protesters in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica March 17, 2008. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

French NATO peacekeeping vehicles burn during clashes with Serb protesters in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica March 17, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Marko Djurica

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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A United Nations investigation into the March storming of a courthouse by U.N. and NATO troops in northern Kosovo criticizes the force for rushing in, diplomats briefed on its contents said on Friday.

U.N. police and NATO troops raided the U.N. court in the town of Mitrovica on March 17 to retake it from Serbs who had forcibly occupied the building three days earlier in protest at Kosovo declaring independence.

The violence during those clashes was the worst since Kosovo's 90-percent Albanian majority declared independence from Serbia in February. A 25-year-old Ukrainian U.N. policeman was killed by a grenade and a Serb protester was shot in the head and gravely wounded.

Russia's U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who has repeatedly criticized both the raid and Western support for Kosovo's secession, told reporters that the U.N. probe had concluded that the use of force against Kosovo Serbs at the time was "absolutely unwarranted."

"The decision to resort to the use of force was a careless blunder to say the least, made over cautionary advice of the (U.N.) secretariat here in New York," Churkin said.

Western diplomats who attended the same briefing on the investigation characterized it differently.

They confirmed that the investigation took a critical view of the actions of the forces, and that it showed that they had ignored advice from U.N. headquarters. But they said the probe had concluded that the troops and police had acted within their mandate.

A U.N. spokeswoman said on Friday that the report had not been released and did not know when it would be circulated.

NATO said at the time that its troops came under automatic gunfire as Serbs converged on the court in the predominantly Kosovo Serb town following the dawn raid. It said Serb hard-liners fired automatic weapons and threw grenades and Molotov cocktails during the clash.

But Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica accused NATO peacekeepers and U.N. police of using "snipers and banned ammunition" to quell the riot.

Serbia and its ally Russia opposed Kosovo's independence and have refused to recognize Europe's youngest country.

'BREAKING DOORS, TWISTING ARMS'

The United Nations later said it had "rock solid proof" that the Serbian Interior Ministry had agents in Mitrovica and had instigated the occupation of the court building.

Churkin said he wanted the U.N. Security Council to be briefed more formally about the investigation and had called for the "upper echelons of the secretariat here in New York to consider the issue of individual responsibility."

"There was no reason to use force," Churkin said.

"Dialogue was continuing. What happened, happened out of the blue. It was 5 a.m. ... 4 a.m. in the morning -- they stormed the house mostly occupied by women ... They started breaking doors and twisting arms."

Churkin said that in his opinion the violence "does look like a deliberate provocation."

But Western diplomats stressed how dangerous the situation at the court house was, with protesters hurling grenades and Molotov cocktails at the troops. They said the report had not taken this fully into account.

"At some point, you have to go in and take back the courthouse," one said.

(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau; editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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