This time, war-crimes trail is on a fast track

Inspectors in Kosovo, aided by the West, quickly prepare for criminal

Unlike Bosnia and Rwanda, the war crimes investigations in Kosovo are a model of speed and efficiency. The efforts here build on lessons learned from past mistakes in both countries and benefit from a much greater political will to act quickly.

It took months - even years - before forensic teams hired by United Nations tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda were able to pick through fading evidence. In Kosovo, teams were on the ground within days of NATO troop deployment in mid-June, securing mass grave sites.

"The political will here has made a significant difference to getting on with the work and gathering evidence," says Dennis Milner, the investigations team leader for Kosovo from the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. The NATO-led forces, he says, are "on our side, and their mandate was written with the Tribunal as a very high priority, with us in mind. I think we moved as fast as physically possible."

The Tribunal's efforts are the most extensive since the prosecution of Nazi Germans at Nuremberg. Its relative efficiency and support from scores of countries point to a growing international focus on holding war criminals accountable.

And analysts say that proving the scale of the crime is also important to NATO politically, to show why 78 days of airstrikes against Serbian forces and infrastructure were necessary.

Speed was important, Mr. Milner says, because Kosovo was "one huge crime scene," and "we knew there would be an immediate influx of refugees. We had to ensure the integrity of the sites."

Experts on loan from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Scotland Yard were the first to examine sites that will provide evidence in the case against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who was indicted by the Tribunal in May for overseeing the purge of Albanians from Kosovo.

More than a dozen other nations also have sent teams, trying - with unprecedented support from NATO - to determine the events of the worst campaign of this type in Europe since World War II. Some 10,000 ethnic Albanians are estimated to have been killed, and 750,000 fled Kosovo.

NATO assistance has helped pave the way. Troops have demined some sites, made roads safe, stood guard round the clock to prevent further tampering, and provided security.

Even before the end of NATO bombing in June, President Clinton ordered the Pentagon to help. Intelligence aid, such as satellite images of freshly dug graves and communications intercepts, has been shared with the Tribunal for the first time.

"People are now better prepared - this has been a huge lesson," says Carl Koenig, a legal adviser for the Tribunal based in the western Kosovo town of Pec.

"People can say: 'We did this, and it worked.' When you have such a will, it's not a question of justifying bombing. People will tell their governments [in the future]: 'Go, now, and deal with war crimes.' They are the political will."

The contrast to the two other examples this decade could not be more sharp. In Bosnia, American-led NATO troops shied away from involvement with war crimes investigators after their deployment in late 1995 and refused to guard suspected gravesites. No protection was provided for teams. It was dangerous, and some Serb-controlled areas were virtually off-limits.

In Rwanda, where a majority Hutu regime conducted a genocide for three months in 1994 that left some 800,000 minority Tutsis dead, international efforts to bring justice were at first beset by a lack of cash and bureaucracy. The same problems have afflicted the Rwanda Tribunal, based in the Tanzanian town of Arusha.

As far as political will in Rwanda, it was almost nonexistent. Two months into the slaughter, by which time the vast majority of those who would die had been killed, American officials still refused to use the word "genocide" - an admission that would have obligated them to intervene according to the 1949 Genocide Convention.

But even as the forensic teams are hard at work here - already 1,000 corpses have been exhumed from some 400 sites - some argue that they could have been faster and smoother. Before Tribunal equipment arrived, investigators had to use their own cameras and cell phones in some cases. And before vehicles arrived, Milner says, "we would have taken bicycles if they had been around."

On a grassy hillside near the western Kosovo village of Padaliste, investigators recently exhumed 97 separate graves of unidentified victims that may have come from the nearby Dubrava prison in the town of Istok, a target hit repeatedly by NATO, officials say, because it doubled as a barracks.

Journalists were taken in late May to see scores of bodies that Serb officials claimed were killed there by NATO bombs. Witnesses are reported to say that two dozen or so died in the airstrikes, but then about 100 Albanian prisoners were lined up and gunned down, and later buried with the bomb victims.

Tribunal experts have exhumed the bodies and are in the process of identifying the victims.

"The work here has been fast, but we could have come much before," says Emilio Perez Pujol, a Spanish pathologist, who also worked in Rwanda.

The importance of speed is not to get at the mass graves, which will change little, explains Mr. Koenig, at the Padaliste site. The key is to examine "crime scenes" before bodies are removed and buried by locals or returning refugees.

But the speed of work is important in another way, too: "It's a big deterrent [to potential war criminals], if they know that they will not end up before the Tribunal in five years, but tomorrow."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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