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Archive for Sunday, April 25, 2004

Authorities study Hamas link in Kosovo prison gunbattle

April 25, 2004

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— Authorities are investigating whether a Jordanian U.N. policeman who killed three American corrections officers in a gunbattle at a Kosovo prison had links to the Palestinian militant group Hamas, a senior NATO official said.

As investigators tried to pin down Sgt. Maj. Ahmed Mustafa Ibrahim Ali's motive, a clearer picture of the April 17 attack emerged this week. Witnesses, U.N. officials, medical personnel and NATO officers, in interviews with The Associated Press, described a scene in which the officers were trapped between a locked gate and Ali's assault rifle.

Eleven officers were wounded before the officers shot and killed Ali, a Palestinian from Jordan. No one is certain what prompted him to open fire, but a survivor said Ali was smiling during his shooting spree, a U.N. source familiar with the investigation said.

Four of the wounded are Kansans: Ronald Hicks, of Hutchinson; former Topeka City Councilwoman Beth Mechler, 44; Carrie Bernhardt, 33, and Lori Reeves, both employees of the El Dorado Correctional Facility.

The attack came three days after U.S. President Bush endorsed a plan by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and back the permanence of some Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The plan rules out resettling Palestinian refugees in Israel.

A senior NATO official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that besides the investigation into any links with Hamas, authorities were examining a trip Ali took to Saudi Arabia only a month before he joined the mission in March to see if it might be connected to the attack.

Jordan's government said Ali, 30, was a distinguished member of his homeland's special police unit and had been decorated for helping to ward off an attack on the Israeli Embassy in the Jordanian capital, Amman. The United Nations has refused to discuss details of the investigation.

Much is at stake for the United Nations in the outcome of the investigation because the police mission in Kosovo, and others like it, rely on throwing together officers from member countries regardless of political philosophy.

"The incident is so grave and appalling that it really calls into question the mission's integrity and unity," said Alex Anderson of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels, Belgium-based think tank.

Like Ali, the corrections officers were new to Kosovo. They arrived just 10 days before the attack and were part of an effort to bring professional corrections expertise into the prisons. Since the United Nations took control of the province in 1999, the prison has been supervised by police with little specialized training.

The world body moved into Kosovo after a 78-day NATO air war launched to stop former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on independence-minded ethnic Albanians.

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