Don't forget the Kosovar prisoners

For thousands of Kosovars and their families the war is not yet over. As the West debates what aid to provide to Serbia, their plight should not be forgotten. These are the Kosovo Albanians arrested during the course of the 16-month war as well as those transported to Serbian prisons "for their own safety" during the Serb troop withdrawal.

The Milosevic regime now denies access by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to these prisoners - estimated variously from an official Serb count of slightly more than 2,000, to 5,000 estimated by a UN official in the British newspaper The Guardian. As evidence from Serbia's torture centers in Kosovo emerges, concern increases for these people still imprisoned.

Among them are: Albin Kurti, a student leader; Flora Brovina, a doctor, poet, and human-rights activist; Halil Matoshi, a magazine editor; and Ukshin Hoti, a professor. As in Bosnia, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his henchmen have devoted special efforts to destroying Kosovo's elites.

The illegal arrest and detention of these Kosovo Albanians, and their transfer to Serbia proper, is described by one Western official as "Milosevic's last card."

Before NATO bombing began, Serbian forces had already arrested thousands of Kosovar Albanians, especially fighting-age men, for political crimes. During the war, they arrested and incarcerated thousands more Kosovo Albanian men, most of whom have not been accounted for.

Unlike the Rambouillet accords and the October Holbrooke-Milosevic agreement before it, the deal brokered by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott with Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin and Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari includes no amnesty provisions for those detained for alleged association with the Kosovo Liberation Army - a widely used Serb pretext for mass imprisonment.

This may already have proved to be a deadly omission. In their effort to eliminate potential leaders of Kosovo's Albanian community, the forces of the Milosevic regime murdered and dismembered human rights leader Bajram Kelmendi immediately before the NATO bombing, and later killed politician Fehmi Agani and other leaders.

Without immediate access to these prisoners taken to Serbia, their fate, like those of thousands of Bosnians once held by Bosnian Serbs and reputed to have been transferred to Serbia, may never be known. The resolution of their status will be crucial if there is to be any hope of reconciliation and cohabitation of Kosovo's Serbs with the Kosovo Albanian majority. It is truly a life and death issue for these people and their families.

Against this background, the West must decide whether to provide humanitarian aid to Serbia. President Clinton and other Western leaders have rightly ruled out reconstruction aid to Serbia so long as indicted war criminal Milosevic remains in power.

While a willingness to provide humanitarian aid seems reasonable, such aid should not be given unconditionally. Given the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo, there are few remaining levers to bring pressure to bear upon Belgrade.

Milosevic is desperately trying to showcase reconstruction as a way to prove to his people he has indeed "won" the war.

Donor countries should use their leverage to demand a full accounting for, and the release of, all Kosovar prisoners held in Serbia. Until these prisoners are visited by ICRC officials and freed, there should be no further humanitarian aid disbursements to Serbia, let alone other forms of aid.

This condition can be fulfilled by Belgrade without difficulty. Given the number of lives in the balance, such an aid ban should be instituted without delay. If the world forgets these Kosovars, evidence suggests they are as good as dead.

* Eric A. Witte is Program Coordinator of the International Crisis Group. Kurt Bassuener is associate director of the Balkan Action Council.

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