Evidence mounts of war crimes

Extent of assault emerges as Serb troops complete withdrawal from

In villages and towns across Kosovo, a fuller picture of the worst ethnic assault in Europe since World War II is emerging.

No one knows how many ethnic Albanians died in the pogroms for which Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has been indicted on international war crimes charges. British officials estimate the number to be as many as 10,000.

But with survivors now returning home protected by NATO peacekeepers, it is clear that the scope of "ethnic cleansing" far exceeds the assessments compiled from satellite photos and the testimonies of survivors.

"We are getting to the truth. It's a worse truth than we had dared dream of," President Clinton told reporters in Cologne, Germany, on June 18.

It is unlikely the whole truth will be learned, or that Mr. Milosevic and four top lieutenants will stand trial in The Hague before the United Nations war-crimes tribunal. But unlike Bosnia-Herzegovina, where NATO gave the tribunal minimal help, the alliance is supporting in Kosovo an investigatory effort unmatched since the trials of Nazi Germans in Nuremberg.

NATO will "take a considerably more proactive stance," the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Louise Arbour, said June 18 in announcing that NATO will de-mine and guard massacre and grave sites. It will also escort a dozen 10-person teams of tribunal staffers and experts on loan from the FBI, Scotland Yard, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and other law-enforcement agencies.

Securing the sites

The scale of the atrocities, however, is so vast that the tribunal and KFOR, the NATO peacekeeping contingent, lack the personnel to secure all of the sites. "The extent and scale is such that we will never have the ability to investigate everything," concedes Mrs. Arbour's deputy, Graham Blewitt. So prosecutors are concentrating on the case against Milosevic.

KFOR has sealed off locations where Serbian forces allegedly killed 340 ethnic Albanians for whose murders the Yugoslav president and his aides have been accused. These are in Mala Krusa, Bela Crkva, Izbica, Crkolez, and Djakovica.

The lack of resources has prosecutors concerned that refugees returning from Albania and Macedonia and journalists will destroy evidence at sites that KFOR cannot yet reach. "Any person who arrives at a crime scene and starts picking up the evidence and interfering with it compromises our ability [to investigate]," says Mr. Blewitt. "It makes it easier for an accused to say it was planted."

One site that KFOR has not yet reached is near Kotlina, an inaccessible hilltop village where residents say Serbian special police killed 22 ethnic Albanian men on March 24 by throwing them into two abandoned wells and setting off explosives.

Much evidence from the site may have already disappeared. Villagers say that some people have already returned to grave sites to collect clothing articles and other remains of their loved ones.

The day NATO airstrikes began, several thousand Serbs surrounded the village. "There was police, army and paramilitaries. They were everywhere," remembers Nexhat Loku, a young ethnic Albanian teacher in the village school.

After rounding up the women, children, and old people, the Serbs began their hunt for young men. They found 22 unarmed Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fighters in the woods and murdered them, says Loku, who was hiding with two friends in an abandoned building.

In addition to challenges in securing sites, there are also worries over what US and NATO officials say has been an extensive coverup effort by Belgrade. In Izbica, some 150 graves of alleged massacre victims photographed by spy satellite and videotaped by a local doctor have been obliterated by a bulldozer. The bodies are believed to have been carted away for incineration before Serbian forces withdrew.

Some experts, however, say the tampering will not prevent the tribunal from making strong cases. Prosecutors, they say, can rely on witnesses' testimonies, satellite photographs, and material such as intercepted communications, which US and allied intelligence agencies are believed to be providing.

The tribunal's lack of resources and NATO's apparent enthusiasm for pursuing the case against Milosevic for political purposes has human rights advocates concerned. They worry that no attention will be given to the murders of some 140 Serbs by ethnic Albanian rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

At the same time, they concede there is no comparison to the Serbs' conduct. "We've seen the blood, we've seen the bodies, we've seen the graves. There is no way to deny what has happened here," says Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based human rights organization.

Evidence throughout province

The scale of the atrocities becomes immediately apparent by driving almost anywhere in the province. In the village of Velika Krusa, Hoti Ademi still lies on the sheepskin rug on which a Serbian gunman apparently slew him three months ago. A pious elderly man, who a neighbor says made the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Mr. Ademi was too infirm to flee a Serbian assault on this ethnic Albanian village on March 25, the day after NATO began bombing Yugoslavia.

His village of 6,500 has been laid waste, every home looted and burned. Near Ademi's home are seven earthen graves, and in another house an elderly woman lies dead, executed in her bed.

During visits over a day and a half to villages around the southern towns of Prizren and Djakovica, the Monitor saw 13 corpses of ethnic Albanians and what appeared to be 10 mass graves. The two biggest - about 100 feet by 20 feet and 75 feet by 15 feet and bearing the scars of a bulldozer blade - were in Djakovica's cemetery. There are also rows of more than 200 individual earthen graves there.

"Before the NATO bombing, there were only 71 graves here," notes Valentina Gjuraj, a human rights activist who went into hiding after Serbs allegedly began killing prominent ethnic Albanians. "Now there are a lot more."

Astrid Balaj, who lives next to the cemetery, says he saw Gypsies (Roma) burying large numbers of bodies there on six occasions. Bone fragments, clothing, and shoes are scattered around. The edges of blankets, which Ms. Gjuraj says were used to carry bodies, protrude from the earth.

In a hedge near the entrance to Meja, villagers point to a patch of bare earth in which they claim are buried some of the dozens of ethnic Albanians allegedly pulled from a tractor convoy and executed during an April 27 Serbian assault. Along the road to Djakovica are small piles of burned documents and charred house keys allegedly stripped from those in the convoy as they fled toward Albania.

Villagers say hundreds of ethnic Albanians died in Meja and nearby hamlets in the assault. They claim the attack was in revenge for the assassination by the KLA five days earlier of a senior Serbian policeman, Milutin Presavic, and four other officers, in an ambush near Meja. Their car still sits on an isolated dirt road, the left rear door blasted open by a shoulder-fired rocket.

*Lucian Kim contributed to this report from Kotlina, Yugoslavia.

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