WASHINGTON (AP) _ Army paratroopers abused and beat civilians in Kosovo after their training for a peacekeeping mission failed to tone down their ``combat mentality,'' an Army investigative report concluded.

The commander of the soldiers' battalion, Lt. Col. Michael D. Ellerbe, was faulted for pursuing a task _ to ``identify and neutralize'' Albanian splinter groups _ beyond the scope of the peacekeepers' mission.

That ``created a set of conditions that provided his subordinates the opportunity to step over the line of acceptable conduct (for example, criminal misconduct, excessive use of force and lack of dignity and respect for others),'' the report concluded.

Defense Secretary William Cohen issued a statement Monday, while traveling in Asia, that called the incidents described in the report a matter of ``grave concern.'' He endorsed Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki's decision to order a high-level review and to take ``corrective actions as appropriate.''

The investigation was ordered after Staff Sgt. Frank J. Ronghi _ a member of A Company, 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division _ was accused of raping and murdering an 11-year-old Kosovo Albanian girl in Vitina last January. Ronghi was convicted and sentenced in August to life in prison.

The investigative report recommended that commanders consider court-martialing an officer, Lt. John Serafini, also of A Company, 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, for assault and conduct unbecoming an officer and for communicating a threat. He admitted to holding an unloaded gun to the head of a Kosovo Albanian man during an interrogation and told investigators, ``I was totally wrong.''

Several other officers and soldiers were recommended for lesser punishment.

At the Fort Bragg, N.C., headquarters of the 82nd Airborne Division, spokesman Maj. Gary Tallman said Monday that in addition to Ronghi, nine soldiers received administrative punishment for actions in Kosovo, but no others were court-martialed. Tallman would not specify soldiers who were punished.

During his trial, Ronghi's attorneys read into the court record excerpts from the investigative report, including descriptions of misbehavior by several soldiers from Ronghi's unit. The full report was withheld from public release until the Army edited it to remove classified information.

In a sworn statement to the investigators, Ellerbe defended his actions. He said ``neutralizing'' Albanian splinter groups was ``the only task implied'' by the U.S. peacekeeping contingent's overall purpose.

``It was essential to eliminate the corrupt leadership that was suspected of committing all of the violent crime in Vitina,'' Ellerbe said, referring to the city in southeastern Kosovo for which his unit was responsible.

``My view is, to be successful at maintaining security in this area and policing the area, you have to eliminate the people that were causing the problems,'' he said.

The investigative report, conducted by Col. John W. Morgan III of the 1st Infantry Division, interviewed numerous soldiers who said Ellerbe's unit had created the impression of being pro-Serbian. This, coupled with Ellerbe's emphasis on ``neutralizing'' Albanian splinter groups, made Vitina ``the natural focal point for abuses and excessive use of force against the Albanians,'' Morgan concluded.

Morgan said the murder of 11-year-old Merita Shabiju was an isolated incident, although he found systemic problems fostered by a ``command climate'' that tolerated misbehavior, at least tacitly. He said battalion and company commanders knew or should have known of alleged misconduct.

``It is my opinion that battalion and company-level leadership failed to take appropriate action based upon reported allegations of soldier misconduct, to include the excessive use of force,'' Morgan wrote.

The report focused attention on whether the 3rd Battalion of the 504th received proper training in peacekeeping tasks, such as crowd control, in the several weeks before the unit went to Kosovo in September 1999. It concluded from interviews with soldiers that they misunderstood their purpose.

One soldier, whose name was not disclosed, told the investigator: ``I don't think we were prepared for what we came into when we got down here. We expected to get fired at and things like that. We didn't expect things to be so calm and laid-back. I actually thought it would be more like combat.''

Said another: ``I would say what we were trained on and what we actually saw when we got over here were two different things. I think the soldiers came over here expecting to lock and load or (be) ready for ground combat.''

Because they were not adequately trained for the full range of peacekeeping tasks, some soldiers ``experienced difficulties tempering their combat mentality,'' the report said. The investigator concluded that the unit's overly aggressive tendencies were manifest in its slogan: ``Shoot 'em in the face.''

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On the Net: Peacekeeping force: http://www.kforonline.com

3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment: http://www.bragg.army.mil/3-504pir/home.htm