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Restoring faith in Kosovo force

Ethnic Albanians shot at French troops Sunday. US soldier accused of murder will have a hearing in days.

By Richard MertensSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 15, 2000



VITINA, YUGOSLAVIA

It's market day in this little town in southern Kosovo, and people are pouring in from nearby villages.

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Middle-aged women carry heavy shopping bags while young men strut in black leather jackets, and teenage girls in heavy makeup stroll arm-in-arm along the main street. On either side, merchants display their wares, hawking almost everything a Kosovar might want, from wood stoves and wristwatches to live chickens.

The US Army is here, too, as part of the NATO-led protection force that came to Kosovo last June, after three months of NATO airstrikes forced Yugoslav troops to end a mass purge of the rebellious ethnic Albanian majority in the Serbian province.

Soldiers from Charlie Company, paratroopers from the American peacekeeping force in Kosovo, work their way through the jostling crowd on a routine patrol. With their flak jackets, Kevlar helmets, and M-16 assault rifles, they hardly blend in.

Last month, on a market day like this one, an American soldier allegedly sexually assaulted and killed an 11-year-old ethnic Albanian girl in Vitina. After the killing, more complaints against the US force came to light, including accusations of verbal abuse, beatings, and inappropriate searches of women.

The Army could hold a hearing as early as this week on whether the soldier accused of the killing, Staff Sgt. Frank Ronghi, should face a court-martial. It is likely to decide within the next two weeks whether to charge any soldiers in connection with the other claims. In the meantime, the Army has replaced the unit at the center of the investigations with Charlie Company, giving its 140 soldiers the double challenge of keeping the peace in Vitina - never easy - and winning back the confidence of its residents.

"We have to kind of mend the wounds," says Staff Sgt. James Krause, of Livonia, Mich., as he leads five soldiers through the bazaar.

When violence boils over

Maintaining good relations is a vital but extremely tricky task in Kosovo. In the divided city of Mitrovica, a recent explosion of violence led ethnic Albanian snipers to target NATO peacekeepers on Sunday. Weekend unrest left one person dead and 19 injured, including two French soldiers. Local ethnic Albanians have accused the French contingent of favoring Serbs, who control the northern side of the city.

Back in Vitina, Staff Sgt. Hector Rubio steps forward to admire a pair of chickens held up by a grizzled old man in a black beret. "I don't want them to be afraid of us," Sergeant Rubio, from El Paso, Texas, explains as his squad continues down the street. "I don't think they know how to take us. But if you go out of your way to talk to them, then they get to know you better."

First Lt. Reubin Felkey, a platoon leader from Redwood Falls, Minn., hands out peppermint candies to children. Some respond with a shy "Thank you" in English before racing off. He senses a new wariness in Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians have regarded Americans as heroes for the role the US played in the war last spring.

"Normally when I hand out candy, I get mobbed," Lieutenant Felkey says. "I get a feeling people here are surprised. They don't make eye contact with us. You look at them, and they look away."