Army report faults troops in Kosovo abuses

82nd Airborne unit used excessive force in peacekeeping role

Inadequate training cited

September 19, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A small number of soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division abused ethnic Albanian civilians in Kosovo earlier this year, according to an Army investigative report released yesterday.

The report concluded that the unit was trained for high-intensity combat and could not switch to the subtle and complex mission of peacekeeping.

The soldiers took part in the interrogation, intimidation and beatings of ethnic Albanians, the report said. Army soldiers also touched ethnic Albanian women on their breasts and buttocks.

Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army's chief of staff, called on one of the service's top generals to review the 700-soldier battalion's "climate and state of discipline" and report back within a month.

Shinseki said Gen. John W. Hendrix, commander of U.S. Army Forces Command, should also look beyond the unit to determine whether any broader problems in the Army must be addressed.

The division has already taken disciplinary action based on the findings and recommendations of the report. "Officers were held accountable at all levels and disciplined when clearly warranted by the facts and evidence," the statement said without elaborating.

Last month, one member of the 130-soldier company, Staff Sgt. Frank J. Ronghi, was found guilty of raping and murdering an 11-year- old Kosovo Albanian girl and sentenced to life in prison by a U.S. military court. Nine other soldiers were found guilty of abusing ethnic Albanian civilians and received minor punishments.

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, who is traveling in Asia, said yesterday that he endorsed Shinseki's decision and called the misconduct "a source of great concern."

A senior Pentagon official familiar with the investigation dismissed the Army's emphasis on peacekeeper training as an explanation for the soldiers' abuses. Such behavior is unacceptable in any type of Army mission, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A spokesman for the 82nd Airborne, Maj. Gary C. Tallman, said division officers were reviewing the 1,100-page report and could not yet answer detailed questions about it. In a statement, the division noted that the misconduct was "largely limited to part of a single platoon of one company": A Company, 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. A platoon is 35 soldiers.

The Army said in its statement that the abuses were committed by a "small number of soldiers" and should "in no way detract from the exceptional job the vast number of soldiers are doing under very difficult circumstances."

The Army's investigating officer, Col. John W. Morgan III, said in his report that the misconduct and "excessive use of force" seemed isolated to one town and one unit. The problems "were not indicative of the overall quality of soldiers' and units' conduct" in the peacekeeping force, he wrote.

About 5,800 U.S. soldiers are in Kosovo - part of a 45,000-member international peacekeeping force trying to maintain a tenuous peace between the ethnic Albanian majority and the Serb minority.

The U.S. peacekeepers, nearly all of them Army soldiers, have patrolled the mountainous province since June 1999, when a NATO bombing campaign forced out Serbian troops and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees were able to return home.

Morgan said he interviewed 65 officers and enlisted soldiers assigned to the battalion and other Army units.

The investigation centered on the Army's response to demonstrations in January by ethnic Albanians in the town of Vitina in southeast Kosovo. The town, which is about 70 percent ethnic Albanians and 30 percent Serbs, had been the scene of bombings and sniper attacks against Serbs.

When the 504th Regiment's 3rd Battalion received its orders in July 1999 to go to Kosovo, it had completed "high-intensity combat operations" training and had done little to prepare for its peacekeeping mission, Morgan wrote. The soldiers had a difficult time "tempering their combat mentality."

Morgan noted soldiers' practice of pointing their weapon with attached light in the faces of civilians, known in the unit as "shoot 'em in the face." The troops lacked proper crowd-control and search techniques.

Moreover, "the unit's pro-Serb mentality" was the cause of the demonstrations in Vitina, he said, noting that a soldier told investigators that he and others had come to recognize the need to protect Serbian civilians from attacks by ethnic Albanians. The report concluded that commanders should stress the importance of "impartiality" in the explosive province.

Soldiers of the 82nd Airborne are among the Army's elite warriors. Those interviewed appeared confused about their role in Kosovo, even though they were ordered to embark on a peacekeeping mission. "We are not trained to act as police and perform policing duties, such as to detain and question personnel," a sergeant told investigators.

Another soldier said, "I think the soldiers came over here expecting to lock and load or [be] ready for ground combat."

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