German NATO troops raided the former Serbian Interior Ministry police headquarters here today and disarmed about 25 ethnic Albanian rebels who apparently had imprisoned and severely beaten 15 elderly people, including a man found chained to a chair who had died, German army officials said.
The prisoners, some chained to radiators, others with their hands bound behind their backs, had apparently been accused of collaborating with Serbs during the war. The German officer who led the raid said the captives, described as Gypsies, told German troops that rebels from the Kosovo Liberation Army had detained them for allegedly looting the homes of ethnic Albanians.
The discovery came four days after the secessionist rebels returned triumphantly to Prizren in southern Kosovo following the withdrawal of Yugoslav army and Serbian police forces, and it serves as a reminder of the KLA's brutal reputation -- something that was frequently overlooked in recent months as the group became a convenient ally of NATO in its air war against Yugoslavia.
U.S. officials have long considered the rebel group to be undisciplined and violent, and at one point called it a terrorist organization. That ended around the time the group became a significant political and military threat to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
Today's discovery, however, highlights the pitfalls NATO could face in forging a working relationship with the rebels, who have taken up positions across Kosovo as Serbian forces withdraw. It also illustrates the challenges in transforming the KLA from a war-hardened guerrilla group to a modern, democratic political organization that respects human rights.
In a search of the building, German soldiers found numerous torture instruments, including sticks with protruding nails, batons with chains and "special skewers," according to Lt. Col. Dietmar Jeserich, a German NATO spokesman. Soldiers said it appeared the instruments belonged to the Serbian police, and it was unclear if any had been used on the Gypsies.
Officials said they found a darkroom with "lots of negatives," a munitions room with piles of grenades, antitank weapons, automatic rifles and other weapons and a stash of amphetamines with syringes.
They also found a room containing more than 1,000 passports that apparently belonged to ethnic Albanians whose personal documents had been confiscated by Serbs as they fled the country during this spring's Serbian offensive in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.
In a first step toward exerting NATO control here, German army officials announced today that, beginning at midnight tonight, KLA members will not be allowed to carry weapons openly or, starting Sunday, appear in uniform in public, under an agreement hammered out with senior KLA officials.
Last week's peace agreement between NATO and Yugoslavia calls for the "demilitarization" of the rebels, although it is unclear whether this means they will be required to give up all their weapons.
German NATO officers said today's search came after KLA officials were told to vacate all former police buildings in Prizren by noon. Shortly before 4 p.m., a NATO unit on routine patrol saw some rebels at the former headquarters of the special police, which the KLA had occupied earlier this week. After radioing their superiors for instructions, the soldiers ordered the KLA to vacate the building within two hours. The German soldiers then entered the building to search it.
Inside, they found KLA rebels standing guard over 14 elderly men and one woman who had been brutally beaten. Some were handcuffed to radiators, and others had their hands bound behind their backs with rope. The badly beaten body of a man about 70 years old was found chained to a chair; he had died just hours before the troops entered the building, German officials said. The cause of death was not known.
The German soldiers ordered the rebels to drop their weapons, and they complied without resisting, said Maj. Dietrich Jensch, who led the search of the building.
One of the Gypsies, Gani Berisha, said he had been held for two days and nights without food or water after being hauled away from his home by KLA soldiers.
"They said that I stole things, but I didn't," he said outside the building. "I only confessed because they put a knife to my throat. They told us, `You all have to leave here. You cooperated with Milosevic.' "
Another prisoner lifted his shirt to show that his rib cage was black and purple with bruises.
As the search commenced, dozens of German troops raced to the scene, and a short time later three jeeps filled with KLA members arrived, leading to a tense standoff in the street, witnesses said. The Germans ordered the KLA rebels to lower their weapons and they complied, after which they were searched and released. Their weapons were confiscated.
Officials said they did not know if the weapons found in the building belonged to the KLA or to Yugoslav troops who abandoned Prizren last Sunday in compliance with the peace agreement.
German officers took the names of 25 KLA members, including a woman, and turned the rebels over to the local KLA commander. It was unclear whether charges would be filed against them.
"They were smirking like they got their hands caught in a cookie jar," said one person who witnessed the scene.
The Gypsies were being treated by German army doctors tonight. German officials said they would have to investigate the incident before deciding whether to hold the Gypsies, and if so, for how long and on what basis.
CAPTION: A German NATO soldier drives two of the Gypsies discovered in the custody of ethnic Albanian rebels.
CAPTION: A member of the Kosovo Liberation Army unloads his handgun under orders from German NATO soldiers who found 25 rebels in a Serbian police building.