TWO key mass graves in Bosnian Serb territory - that American forces were assigned to safeguard - have been tampered with.
Dozens or more bodies of slaughtered Muslims may have been removed from the site, weakening the International War Crimes Tribunal's case against Bosnian Serb leaders and complicating efforts to account for some 3,000 to 8,000 missing.
Wide swaths of the two graves, five miles west of the town of Karakaj, have been recently dug up. And civilian jackets, canes, and shoes photographed at the site last October by The Christian Science Monitor have disappeared.
But new evidence - such as human remains and dozens of blindfolds - was found in a nearby dumping ground that corroborates the accounts of Muslims who survived the massacres. Thousands of men from Srebrenica were executed last July when Bosnian Serb forces overran the UN-protected town.
A group of Western reporters visited the grave sites yesterday. And a team from The Hague-based International War Crimes Tribunal began inspecting a dozen execution and grave sites near Srebrenica.
The Tribunal has indicted Bosnian Serb "President" Radovan Karadzic and Army chief Gen. Ratko Mladic for their alleged roles in the worst massacre in Europe since the Holocaust.
Justice as part of peace
Punishing those responsible and accounting for Srebrenica's missing was seen as crucial by US officials for the implementation of the Dayton peace accord.
International human rights officials say the Tribunal probably already has enough evidence to prosecute the Bosnian Serb leaders, but the Tribunal will not comment on its ongoing investigation. The likely removal of bodies from the graves, however, could complicate efforts to identify the thousands of Muslim men still missing from Srebrenica.
Approximately 70 percent of the larger of the two mass graves and approximately 50 percent of the smaller of the two have been recently dug up. Fresh tracks from heavy vehicles crisscross the site, compared with older heavy-vehicle tracks that have grass growing on them.
Valuable evidence from the site - the only execution site where three credible survivors interviewed by the Monitor last fall say Bosnian Serb military commander General Mladic was seen just before the execution started - may have been lost through the tampering.
The tampering at the site indicates that the strategy of the US-led NATO Implementation Force (IFOR) in Bosnia of safeguarding the graves through aerial reconnaissance and intermittent ground controls may not be working. IFOR officials say they have seen no evidence of tampering with the graves they are monitoring, but do not disclose how often the sites are photographed or visited by their ground patrols. A combination of thick cloud cover blocking aerial surveillance and the lapses between IFOR visits may have allowed the tampering to go undetected.
While the fresh digging appears substantial, the effort to remove evidence around the graves - presumably by Bosnian Serbs - appears poorly coordinated.
New evidence found
Near the grave sites, the Monitor found a pile of debris dumped in the woods 200 yards away. Dozens of blindfolds with apparent blood stains on some of them, a piece of newspaper with Dutch writing on it, and a discarded US Army field dressing were found in the debris.
Survivors of the mass execution say blindfolds were placed over their eyes before they were taken to the execution site.
A contingent of Dutch peacekeepers served in Srebrenica, and food and medical supplies were dropped into the enclave by the US military in 1993.
One passport, one identity card, two bank books, Muslim prayer beads, and a book that was used by individuals in the former Yugoslavia to record medical visits were found. But rain had made most of them illegible.
Survivors from Srebrenica say men carried identity papers with them they thought would be valuable if they survived the 30-mile trek through Serb territory to Muslim-held central Bosnia.
A salt packet from the World Food Programme and a bag marked "Nonprofit Medical Supplies" were also found. Such aid was distributed to both sides in the conflict, but the debris also fits survivors' descriptions of what men fleeing Srebrenica carried. The debris was found in a spot that had previously held a stack of roughly 100 civilian jackets and three canes that were photographed by the Monitor last October.
Bosnian Serb authorities, who seized the film when this reporter was arrested in October, appear to have systematically removed many of the objects that were photographed.
Human rights activists have long maintained that only placing ground troops at the sites will fully prevent the graves from being tampered with. Western diplomats say that the tampering highlights the continuing problems IFOR commanders have in dealing with the war crimes aspects of the peace accord.
"It begs the question of what IFOR commitment to guarding these places really is," says one Western diplomat, "since they refuse to put people on the ground."
IFOR commanders have been hesitant to station US troops at the graves. They say they do not have enough soldiers to guard all of the sites.
US Adm. Leighton Smith ordered spy planes and satellites and intermittent ground patrols to begin monitoring the sites in January. The digging appears to have occurred this spring.
"There is an array of different ways to monitor [the grave sites]," says Col. Charles de Noirmont, an IFOR spokesman. "It's continuous. When there is cloud cover, there are ground patrols."
But the removal of bodies from the graves may complicate efforts to identify all of Srebrenica's missing and hurt IFOR's credibility.
"A strong case was made that aerial surveillance and occasional checks would be enough," says the human rights official, "but I think this calls into question that assumption."