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Serbs Leave Sites of Civilian Slayings

October 1, 1998

by Guy Dinmore
Special to The Washington Post – October 1, 1998

GOLUBOVAC, Yugoslavia, Sept. 30—Some Serbian special police forces pulled out of central Kosovo today, giving Western investigators the chance to move in and gather evidence of what appeared to be a systematic pattern of atrocities committed against ethnic Albanian civilians.

U.S. and European diplomats monitoring the Serbian government’s announcement Monday of a unilateral cease-fire in Kosovo said it appeared that the police units had driven home a brutal message to the ethnic Albanian population last weekend before withdrawing from the region.

In at least two villages in the central Drenica region, a former stronghold of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army, witnesses and survivors said police massacred civilians on Saturday. Farms in the region were torched and cattle killed.

Police carried out a mass execution of 14 men in a farm compound during an attack on this village, according to an ethnic Albanian resident — the sole survivor — who gave his account today to Western diplomats and journalists.

His account paralleled descriptions of a massacre of at least 19 ethnic Albanians in the nearby village of Gornje Obrinje the same day. Most of the victims of that attack, who included six women and four children, were shot in the head at close range. Some had their throats cut.

Col. Bozidar Filic, a Serbian police spokesman, denied that police officers were responsible for the killings but said an investigation would be conducted.

Human rights investigators who have attended burials and interviewed survivors say more than 60 people may have been executed in the Drenica region last weekend. Corpses are still scattered in lanes and woods.

More than 700 people have been killed in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia’s dominant republic, since Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic launched an offensive against the Kosovo Liberation Army in late February. The guerrillas have fought for independence for the province, where ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs by 9 to 1, but have been routed by Serbian police and Yugoslav army forces in recent months.

Lying in bed with bullet wounds in his arm and leg, the survivor of Saturday’s attack in this village said he had lived by pretending to be dead. His account was supported by an elderly farmer who said he saw the killings from behind the wall of his yard where the execution took place.

According to the survivor, who was too terrified for his name to be made public, Serbian police and Yugoslav army units attacked his village, and then rounded up civilians who had taken refuge in a nearby wood.

“They separated us men from the women and children,” he said. “Police and army in various uniforms took us to a farmyard where we were forced to crouch with our hands behind our necks.”

Police, he said, then beat them with farm tools and wooden clubs, and stabbed some of them with a pitchfork. The witness said he saw police gouge out the eyes of some of the victims with a cleft stick. By this point some of them already were dead, but one policeman, seated on an old car seat propped up on a mound of earth, finished off the execution at close range with a machine gun.

Taken to the compound today, reporters saw large patches of blood on the ground, blood-stained farm tools and the car seat with scores of spent cartridges scattered nearby.

By the time Western investigators arrived, villagers had buried the 14 men, but the bodies of other victims, killed in nearby woods, were still being brought to the small, Muslim graveyard. The contorted corpse of one man was badly charred, but what a diplomat described as an entry wound could be seen in the back of his head.

Convoys of trucks and buses carrying several hundred policemen were seen withdrawing from central Kosovo today, though it was unclear whether they were planning to pull out completely from the province to Serbia proper. In Washington, State Department spokesman James Foley and other U.S. officials said that while the Serbians have pulled back some security forces, they have been replaced by newly arrived units.

Machine-gun fire and tank engines could be heard near the village of Likovac, about five miles north of here. Western diplomats said government forces also continued to shell and burn villages about five miles from the southern town of Suva Reka, one of the guerrillas’ last remaining pockets of organized resistance.

Representatives of the U.N. war crimes tribunal based in The Hague already have interviewed survivors of the massacres, as have members of the Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission, which comprises envoys from the United States, Russia and European nations. The tribunal was set up during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia but has the jurisdiction to investigate alleged war crimes throughout the former Yugoslavia.

Their mission is not without danger. An ethnic Albanian doctor was killed today when a Red Cross vehicle hit a land mine a few miles from Gornje Obrinje. Five Serbian policemen also died in a mine explosion in the same area Friday, an event that some diplomats believe led to police reprisals in surrounding villages the next day.

These latest atrocities are not the first in Kosovo. When Serbia launched its offensive against the guerrillas on Feb. 28, special police units singled out 10 men from the same family in Likosane, beat them and executed them on the spot. Their bodies were later returned, mutilated, to their families.

The Serbian authorities allege that the guerrillas have tortured and executed Serbian prisoners. Officials said more than 20 bodies were dredged out of a canal near Glodjane in southwest Kosovo last month. Some of them later turned out to be ethnic Albanians. The U.N. war crimes tribunal has said it wants to send forensic experts to investigate alleged atrocities committed by both sides.

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