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New Kosovo Massacre May Spur NATO to Act

September 30, 1998

by Guy Dinmore
Special to The Washington Post on Wednesday, September 30 1998

Their bodies lay as they fell, throats cut or shot in the back of the head — 19 ethnic Albanians believed to have been executed by Serbian police units in the most harrowing massacre of civilians since warfare erupted in Kosovo seven months ago.

Relatives and neighbors today dug graves for the dead — most of them women, children and elderly people — as they tearfully recounted the massacre that occurred Saturday when government forces entered this village in the Serbian province of Kosovo following the killing of seven policemen by separatist guerrillas.

Hamide Delija, who managed to flee the attack along with most other able-bodied men of the village, closed the eyes of his father, Ali, as relatives carried his body past on a makeshift stretcher. “My father, my wife, my two children, my brother, his wife and child, all were killed,” Delija said.

With the death toll in the bitter conflict between government forces and ethnic-Albanian rebels steadily mounting and little sign that Serbia will adhere to a unilateral cease-fire it announced Monday, senior NATO sources said today there is a growing possibility that the Western alliance will intervene militarily in Kosovo as early as next month.

Serbia is the dominant republic of Yugoslavia, and NATO sources said the alliance’s next step would be to deliver an ultimatum to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic demanding a cease-fire and full access to refugees from the Kosovo conflict. If the demands are not met, they said, NATO would proceed with plans set in motion at a NATO defense ministers meeting last week to launch airstrikes against Serbian targets. Last week, the U.N. Security Council issued a call for an immediate cease-fire and the withdrawal of government forces from Kosovo.

Ninety percent of Kosovo’s 2 million inhabitants are ethnic Albanians, who favor greater autonomy from Belgrade — capital of both Serbia and Yugoslavia — or outright independence. More than 700 people, most of them civilians, have died in the fighting, and more than a quarter-million have been left homeless since Milosevic launched a military offensive in February against an ethnic-Albanian guerrilla movement battling for independence — the Kosovo Liberation Army.

As the West steps up pressure on Milosevic to end the fighting, international human rights organizations continue to document atrocities in the conflict. Investigators from the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague are opening files on abuses committed by both sides here — the rebels and the Serbian paramilitary police units, many of them veterans of the 1991-1995 wars in the former Yugoslav republics of Bosnia and Croatia. Their work has been hampered, however, by a Serbian refusal to permit investigations by independent forensic experts.

Western ambassadors who toured Kosovo today were visibly shocked as they read files compiled by diplomatic observers of the massacre of women, children and elderly people in this village, 25 miles west of Pristina, the provincial capital. Earlier, villagers had led diplomats and foreign reporters to the woods and fields where the bodies lay. Graves were being dug. The roar of a Serbian tank and occasional gunfire resounded in the distance.

The youngest victim was 18-month-old Valmiri Delija, her face spattered with blood. Clad in a purple jacket and clutching a pacifier and baby bottle, she was found huddled next to the corpse of her mother in a thickly wooded gully.

It was not clear how the child died, but five women and three other children around her had been shot at close range in the back of the head, apparently as they were attempting to climb a muddy slope to flee the woods where they had taken refuge from Serbian shelling of the village.

Nearby lay the corpses of an elderly couple on mattresses under what had been a shelter of tarpaulins and branches. The woman’s throat had been slit; her husband’s head had been hacked off or shot away. His brains lay on the far side of the woman’s body, covered with swarms of flies.

A little distance along the forest path lay the body of an old man, Ali Delija, Hamide’s father. He too had been shot in the back of the head, and his throat had been cut. A knife lay on his chest.

Farther up the gully, the charred remains of Fazli Delija, 95, smoldered in the ruins of his burned-out house. The bodies of two men were found close to a line of trees that had been splintered by a tank; those of three elderly people lay in their gardens, and reporters came across the corpse of another man who had bled to death in the woods.

A six-month-old baby, found next to the body of its mother, survived the slaughter.

Altogether, reporters found 19 bodies, all in civilian clothes, and villagers said all were members of the extended Delija family. Although it was not clear why the family was targeted, the massacre repeated a pattern here in which Serbian forces have singled out the largest family in a village — often one with male members of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Delija family survivors denied any of their relatives had joined the guerrilla force.

One survivor, Sadri Delija, said he was with a group of women and children hiding in the woods Friday when the attack on the village began. On Saturday morning, he said, he saw policemen wearing various kinds of uniforms approach their hiding place. “I fled,” he said. “I saw nothing of the killings, but, yes, I heard screams and gunfire.”

Serbian officials made no comment on reports of the killings. Diplomats said it is likely they would blame the massacre on the guerrillas, who are known, on occasion, to have killed fellow ethnic Albanians they regard as government collaborators.

Seven policemen were killed in the area of the village on Friday — five in the explosion of a land mine — and diplomatic observers said it is possible the massacre was carried out in retaliation.

A declaration by the Serbian government Monday that its offensive against the guerrillas was over was met with widespread skepticism, as a heavy artillery bombardment in the Suva Reka area of southern Kosovo continued into late Monday. Today, police blocked diplomats from approaching the area, but the envoys said they could see villages burning in the distance. Local ethnic-Albanian journalists said the shelling and burning of villages by government forces there is still underway.

Since the fighting broke out in February, much of southwestern and central Kosovo has been destroyed and has been largely deserted by its ethnic-Albanian residents. Diplomats estimate that about 200 villages have been obliterated or heavily damaged, some leveled by bulldozers. As winter approaches, aid agencies estimate that 50,000 refugees are without shelter.

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