Persistent but unconfirmed reports of atrocities committed by Serbian forces against ethnic Albanian civilians are emerging from Kosovo. These reports range from the systematic burning and destruction of homes of ethnic Albanians forced to flee by fighting, to the manipulation of food and relief supplies to displaced people, to more disturbing allegations of the killing of civilians in one town overtaken by Serbian forces.
Recent reports in the Financial Times and Newsday cite ethnic Albanians from the southwestern town of Orahovac who say that Serb forces killed the leader of the town's Halveti Shia Muslim sect and "scores" of his followers gathered in the basement of the sect's religious building, when the forces took the town from Albanian separatists in July. In addition, refugees from Orahovac have told the Pristina-based Council for Defense of Human Rights that Serbian paramilitary forces removed 12 truckloads of corpses from Orahovac on July 21, before Western observers and reporters got there.
While earlier reports of mass graves near Orahovac have been discounted by European Union monitors and US members of the Kosovo Observer Mission, this account deserves further investigation. It isn't clear if that is happening.
US diplomats on the ground in Kosovo, and State Department officials back home, are vague about what the US knows concerning Serbian atrocities. US ambassador to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Christopher Hill, reported "no new findings" to support reports of a mass grave on the outskirts of Orahovac. Pat Mullen, a US member of the Kosovo Observer Mission, says his team isn't able to "chase every press report of mass graves." Asked about the report of trucks carrying bodies out of Orahovac, Mr. Mullen said, "Do You know where the trucks went? We don't know."
There are several reasons US officials might not want to say what they know about Serbian atrocities. At this point in the US diplomatic effort to get both sides to the bargaining table, reports of atrocities, if shown to be true, would give ammunition to ethnic Albanian leaders in Kosovo, who want what Washington is unwilling to negotiate: independence from Serbia. Evidence of atrocities would also intensify pressure on the West to intervene militarily. It would also compromise the US diplomatic effort itself, which has increasingly restrained its criticism of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, in favor of blaming ethnic Albanians who demand that the Serbian offensive stop before talks resume. In the wake of the most recent Serbian onslaught, which has burned more than 30 Kosovo villages to the ground and rendered more than 200,000 people homeless, the US position looks increasingly morally corrupt.
The lead US negotiators on Kosovo - ambassador to the United Nations-designate Richard Holbrooke and Mr. Hill - need to publicly announce a US commitment to stop Serbian aggression against civilians in Kosovo. To do so, the US needs to use its technological and human intelligence capabilities to investigate specific instances of Serbian atrocities against civilians - including the killing and torture of civilians, the burning and pillage of their homes, and the manipulation of food and relief supplies to the displaced. They should release reports by the Kosovo Observer Mission, and satellite images, that might reveal what the Serbs have done with the bodies of people killed in the Serbian offensives. In addition, Louise Arbour, the lead prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for ex-Yugoslavia, should use her organization's mandate to compile eyewitness testimonies, exhume suspected mass grave sites, and issue indictments. Her organization has the unique opportunity not only to prosecute past crimes, but to discourage future war crimes by exposing atrocities and excesses committed by individual Serbian police and Yugoslav troops, and their commanders.
REVEALING Serbian war crimes against Kosovar civilians doesn't rectify the fundamental flaw in US policy toward Kosovo. That is, that Mr. Holbrooke's motto of "diplomacy backed by the credible threat of force" has run out of steam, as Mr. Milosevic has once again exposed US unwillingness to use force to back its words. But it could spare US officials further moral embarrassment. Because if it surfaces later that atrocities were committed this summer, it will be hard for US officials to show that they didn't know about them.
* Laura Rozen is a Boston journalist who has reported frequently from the Balkans.