ZAGREB, CROATIA — THEIR stories are anecdotal, but chilling.
Two Muslim cousins from the fallen UN ''safe area'' of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia describe being captured by Serb soldiers last month and bused to a remote location. Along with hundreds of other men, they were lined up and systematically shot.
One of the men took his cousin's hand as the firing began and bade him farewell. But both lived: one unscathed and the other with a slight head wound. The Serb soldiers assumed they were dead.
Both hid among the corpses for hours, listening to what they believe were mass executions by machine guns.
After the Serbs left, the two slipped away under cover of darkness and walked 30 miles through heavily wooded, mountainous Serb territory to Bosnian government-held Tuzla.
''I have heard incredible eyewitnesses' accounts from refugees of mass executions of men and boys by Bosnian Serb soldiers,'' John Shattuck, United States assistant secretary of state for human rights, said Tuesday after two days of interviewing refugees in Tuzla, one of the other UN-declared safe areas.
Echoing numerous press reports published immediately after the July 11 fall of Srebrenica, Mr. Shattuck said various accounts of brutal torture were reported to him.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced Monday it had toured a limited number of Bosnian Serb prisons in the Srebrenica and Zepa area and found only 208 prisoners. UN officials said that the Serbs appeared to have taken away about 200 others fleeing the area.
As many as 7,000 people are believed to be missing from Srebrenica while 3,000 others - 1,500 of them armed men - are believed to be still hiding in the hills around Zepa.
''We were somewhat surprised at the small number of prisoners we found,'' said Christope Girod, deputy chief of the Geneva-based ICRC's Balkans division. ''We have no indication of what has happened to the missing people.''
If true, the alleged atrocities represent the greatest number of war crimes in Bosnia since Bosnian Serb death camps and ''ethnic cleansing'' campaigns were reported three years ago.
Reports of Serb Abuses Reach All-Time High
Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic were indicted by The Hague-based international war crimes tribunal last week, and tribunal officials are in Bosnia collecting evidence from refugees. But critics warn that an impending deal with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to ease punishing United Nations sanctions on Serbia will effectively end efforts to bring Mr. Karadzic, General Mladic, and other alleged criminals to justice.
''The only leverage the international community has to push for these extraditions is sanctions,'' says Ivana Nizich, a Yugoslavia researcher at Human Rights Watch in New York. A deal with Milosevic ''removes an incentive for extradition. It would be the death knell for the tribunal.''
The five-nation ''contact group'' - the US, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia - met in Washington yesterday, and is on the verge of accepting a deal that would ease economic sanctions on Yugoslavia in exchange for Milosevic's recognition of Bosnia's international borders.
The deal, brokered by European Union mediator Carl Bildt, would further isolate the Bosnian Serbs, but critics say it will do little to end fighting in Bosnia and hamper attempts to bring war criminals to justice. The Croatian and Bosnian governments rejected the deal Tuesday, and US and German officials are reportedly hesitant to endorse it so soon after the alleged atrocities committed in Srebrenica. But observers worry that the deal will be quietly approved in the future.
''The present attitude of the US, Britain, and France is peace at any cost,'' says Cherif Bassiouni, former chairman of the UN commission that amassed enough evidence for the formation of a tribunal. ''This has been telegraphed to these people.''
Zagreb-based Western diplomats believe Milosevic directly approved or gave tacit approval to the Bosnian Serb conquests and ethnic cleansing of Srebrenica and Zepa. Milosevic is widely blamed for starting the war in the former Yugoslavia to seize chunks of Bosnia and Croatia and form a ''Greater Serbia.'' Serbs currently control 70 percent of Bosnia and 25 percent of Croatia.
Since its inception, Serbs have dismissed the war crimes tribunal as biased against them. Last December, Milosevic's government vowed not to cooperate with the tribunal - meaning it is unlikely Karadzic and Mladic will ever be extradited from Serb territory.
Serbs point to the fact that all the tribunal's 46 indictments name Serbs. No Muslims or Croats have yet been indicted.
All sides in the conflict are believed to have committed atrocities in the bitter fighting, but Serbs are believed to have committed the majority.
Judge Richard Goldstone, chief prosecutor for the war crimes tribunal, says a lack of cooperation from Serb authorities is preventing him from investigating alleged war crimes committed by Croats and Muslims.
Human rights officials say even if all war criminals cannot be brought to justice, it is crucial that the first international tribunal established since World War II bring Bosnian Serb leaders to justice. But they doubt the political will exists to pursue Mladic or Karadzic. Mr. Bassiouni says the West is too desperate for a peace deal to aggressively pursue Mladic, Karadzic, and especially Milosevic.