Probing Serb war crimes - quickly

NATO is expected to assist the UN search for mass graves and other

NATO and the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal are developing plans to cooperate closely on gathering war-crimes evidence in Kosovo in what would be the most intensive investigative effort of its kind since the end of World War II.

Tribunal officials could enter Kosovo with the first NATO peacekeeping troops to coordinate the speedy securing of suspected mass graves and other sites of atrocities against majority ethnic Albanians by Serbian forces and minority Serbs, United States and tribunal officials say.

NATO could also de-mine sites and provide security for investigators, including as many as 500 forensics experts seconded from the FBI, Scotland Yard, and law-enforcement agencies of other countries, according to these officials. The alliance would also furnish logistical support and liaison officers to The Hague-based tribunal, they say.

"There has already been a very high level of planning," says tribunal spokesman Paul Risley. But NATO officials say no plans have been finalized. The alliance, NATO officials say, remains wary about being diverted from its main task of protecting the province's ethnic Albanians, including the almost 1 million deportees who would return from Macedonia and Albania. "Nothing has been put on paper on this yet," says NATO spokesman Harald Bungarten.

If an agreement is finalized, it would represent a fundamental shift by NATO from its peacekeeping operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where it has strenuously resisted involvement in war-crimes investigations in order to avoid "mission creep." It would come amid a new willingness by many governments to pursue leaders accused of massive human rights violations and crimes against humanity.

In the first indictment of a head of state for war crimes, the tribunal on May 27 announced it was charging Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic with overseeing Serbian "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo during 2-1/2 months of NATO airstrikes. Spain is trying extradite from Britain former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, while international pressure is building to bring to trial leaders of Ethiopia's erstwhile Marxist regime.

The planning for collecting war-crimes evidence in Kosovo is being driven by concerns that Belgrade is pursuing massive destruction of evidence. US officials say they have credible reports that since Belgrade's acceptance last week of a NATO-backed peace plan, Serbian troops have intensified the effort, unearthing mass graves and incinerating bodies at Kosovo's Trepca mine and in central Serbia.

"There has been a real effort to clean up ... over the last week and a half," says a US official. "There is a very real issue of tampering."

Consideration by NATO of close support for the tribunal appears to reflect a determination by the US and its allies to pursue the indictment of Mr. Milosevic. NATO has "given us very specific assurances that they are interested in seeing full cooperation between NATO and the tribunal," says Mr. Risley. "You did not see those kinds of clear assurances in Bosnia."

US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say President Clinton has directed the Pentagon, which resisted any role in war-crimes investigations in Bosnia, to work closely with the tribunal in Kosovo. "This decision has been made at the highest level," says one US official. "The DOD [Department of Defense] is balking at everything, but they understand that they are going to do pretty much everything."

"This all sounds like a sea change," says William Stuebner, a former tribunal adviser in Bosnia, now at the US Institute for Peace in Washington. He notes that NATO refused to provide 24-hour guards on mass grave sites to prevent tampering or personal security to investigators. And, while arresting some war-crimes suspects, it has allowed others to remain free, including former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, he says.

"The Pentagon has never been enthusiastic about any kind of war-crimes activities," he asserts. "They had a limited mission [of separating the warring sides], and they did not want to step outside that box."

Should it do so in Kosovo, it would be the most intensive war-crimes investigative effort since the Nuremberg prosecutions of Nazi German leaders.

Planning between NATO and the tribunal has been ongoing for a month, says Risley, noting it was discussed in Brussels this week between US Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO's top commander, and Louis Arbour, the tribunal's chief prosecutor.

It cannot be finalized, officials say, until Yugoslavia signs a technical accord on a pullout from Kosovo of all Serbian troops, police, and paramilitary gangs under a draft UN resolution agreed on by the world's seven leading industrial nations and Russia on Tuesday. Talks between NATO and Yugoslav officials on the technical accord were suspended until today in Macedonia following an all-night session.

The draft resolution, embodying the peace plan accepted last week by Milosevic, must also be approved by the UN Security Council, where it has met with Chinese objections. China opposes a provision requiring full cooperation with the tribunal by all parties, including the 50,000-strong NATO-led peacekeeping force, because it believes the indictment of Milosevic was "politically motivated."

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