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US, EU and Russia Support Arrest of Ethnic-Albanian Rebels in Kosovo - 2002-08-22

The United States has joined the European Union and Russia in rebuking the Kosovo government for its criticism of the arrests of former ethnic-Albanian rebel leaders in Kosovo by U.N. police. The arrests last week have stirred up political passions in the Yugoslav province, which has been under U.N. administration for three years.

The United States has come down strongly on the side of the U.N.'s mission in Kosovo, whose police force backed by NATO-led peacekeepers of KFOR last week arrested several former ethnic-Albanian rebels including a top figure in the now-disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army.

The arrested rebel leaders were charged with a variety of offenses ranging from abduction to murder stemming from the conflict in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999 between the ethnic-Albanian rebels and Yugoslav forces under former president Slobodan Milosevic.

The arrests touched off protests by thousands of people including a clash between ethnic Albanians and security forces in western Kosovo in which more than 50 people were injured including 11 U.N. policemen and three members of KFOR.

Earlier this week, the Kosovo prime minister, Bajram Rexhepi, demanded an end to the arrests and called the detainees "political prisoners" and "hostages" to the political process.

Those remarks and similar comments by other local officials in Pristina have drawn sharp rebukes from sponsors of the Kosovo peace process, including the European Union, Russia and the United States.

At a briefing here, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the United States fully supports efforts by the U.N. administration in Kosovo (UNMIK) to promote the rule of law, and "rejects" any suggestion that the arrests were politically-motivated or beyond its mandate.

"We have no doubt that the arrests have taken place strictly in accordance with the established judicial process, and without regard to ethnic, national, or political affiliation of the suspects. We call upon all Kosovo political leaders and others to respect the fundamental principal of a judicial process without political interference. We further urge that any protests remain peaceful and adhere to the rules and procedures for public safety established by United Nations authorities," Mr. Reeker said.

Prime Minister Rexhepi has insisted that UNMIK has no mandate to investigate incidents that occurred before Kosovo came under U.N. and NATO control, and that all arrests for crimes committed before June 1999 are invalid.

A spokeswoman for UNMIK, however, said U.N. authorities have both a right and duty to arrest any ethnic Albanian crime suspect, as it has done for Serbs accused of crimes before 1999.

The NATO force in Kosovo currently numbers about 35,000 troops, including about 5,000 Americans, supplemented by about 4,000 U.N. police.