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Yugoslavia: British Investigators Describe Kosovo Probe

  • Ben Partridge

RFE/RL's London correspondent reports on a briefing at the British Foreign Office on ongoing war crimes investigations in Kosovo. A British forensics team returned from Kosovo this week after on site investigations and talked about what they had found.

London, 15 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A British police team says it has gathered enough evidence about Serbian massacres of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo to allow criminal charges to be brought against those responsible at the UN war crimes tribunal at the Hague.

The 17-strong team of police, forensic scientists, pathologists and ballistics experts have been investigating the murders of civilians -- including women and children -- at villages in southwest Kosovo. They spoke at a press briefing yesterday at the British Foreign Ministry.

The criminal investigation is part of a UN-backed drive to discover the truth about what British experts say was the killing of 10,000 or more civilians by Serbian forces in Kosovo since the middle of last year.

Detective Chief Superintendent John Bunn said the British team investigated one massacre at the village of Bela Crkva, north of Prizren in southwest Kosovo near the Albanian border. Bunn is the head of the forensic team at London's Scotland Yard.

He spoke at the press briefing after the screening of a video film about the Bela Crkva killings which, according to British officials, happened at the end of March. Bunn says the police team has gathered a lot of incriminating evidence.

"If I were one of those people responsible for the massacres that we are now uncovering, and that we have seen on the video, I think if I were sitting there, probably with my family, some of these men must have families, I would be an extremely worried person. I would be waiting for that knock on the door when someone says, 'You are now under arrest and you are going to be indicted.'"

British officials say the killings happened after the first day of "Operation Allied Force" when NATO bombs hit the local Serbian police station. The following day Serbian tanks allegedly surrounded Bela Crkva and opened fire. Serbian police allegedly chased villagers into nearby fields, and shot 12 of them under a railway bridge.

David Gowan, Britain's Kosovo War Crimes Coordinator, says the dead included children killed in what the British investigators say appeared to be acts of 'pre-meditated murder.'

Scotland Yard's Bunn says the surviving Bela Crkva villagers buried the bodies in another location, fearing the Serbian police would set fire to them, destroying the evidence. Their intention was to preserve them until a safer time so they could be exhumed and given a proper funeral.

In fact, the exhumation was carried out by the British police team who examined the bodies, took photographs, and gathered eyewitness statements. The evidence will be sent to the international war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. It will now be up to chief prosecutor Louise Arbour to decide whether to issue indictments against those alleged to be responsible.

The police team was sent to Kosovo by British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. Cook said from the start of the Kosovo crisis that the British government would do all it could to ensure that those responsible for war crimes would be brought to justice.

The British probe is part of an international drive by police, forensic scientists and pathologists to exhume bodies from mass graves across Kosovo, and to identify the alleged killers.

Police and forensic experts from at least six other countries are also working on investigations in Kosovo on behalf of the UN war crimes panel. The teams are working in close cooperation with NATO-led forces in Kosovo.

The British investigators say the experts will have more than enough to do. Gowan, Britain's Kosovo War Crimes Coordinator, says the killings at Bela Crkva are only "the tip of an iceberg." He released a map yesterday which shows scores of mass graves reported or found in Kosovo as of June 20.

"We are still conducting a fairly major exercise to calculate how many people have been killed as a result of atrocities going back to the middle of last year. The figure is certainly 10,000 Kosovo Albanians [who] have been killed and possibly more.... Seventy-eight towns and villages have been destroyed. Fifty-three areas have been ethnically cleansed. So far, KFOR has found over 100 possible mass graves, and more are being discovered all the time."

The western police teams say their investigations are strictly impartial. They say that reports of killings of Serbian civilians by ethnic Albanian paramilitaries will also be investigated, and the evidence sent to The Hague for possible criminal indictments.

UN officials are now leading an effort to re-establish in-country local independent judiciaries in Kosovo, as well as a police force, that will also be given the job of investigating alleged war crimes.

According to Gowan, the evidence gathered so far about killings carried out by Serbian army, police and paramilitaries, suggests "a pattern of action" coordinated by Belgrade authorities.

"What is clear from all the evidence that has emerged is that we are not dealing with random actions, but a pattern of action which seems to have been coordinated at the center. The mass of evidence which is now emerging, and is being investigated, does point to a coordinated campaign of killing, destruction, depopulation and so forth."

Another British team is currently in Kosovo to take part in the investigations. Those who took part in yesterday's briefing at the Foreign Ministry stated their belief in the importance of the work and a willingness to return to the province to take part.