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Serbia: Amnesty International Criticizes Denial Of Access To Kosovo

London, 11 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Amnesty International has expressed concern about the refusal of Serb authorities to allow journalists, human rights monitors and humanitarian agencies access to areas of Kosovo where police are reported to have killed ethnic Albanians in a crackdown.

The worldwide human rights organization said in a statement last night: "If President Milosevic and the Yugoslav leadership have nothing to hide, and the actions of its forces are legitimate under international human rights law, then there can be no reason to keep the eyes of the world away from Kosovo province."

AI expressed concern that the denial of access may reflect "unrestrained police actions involving rights violations which may include arbitrary killings, torture and arbitrary detention."

"Such rights violations have been reported by ethnic Albanians in the Drenica region of Kosovo province where police operations to hunt out 'terrorists' have taken place in the past 10 days. "

The statement said: "From 28 February to 2 March, at least 24 ethnic Albanians were killed during police operations in Likosane and Cirez villages -- allegations have been made that some of the victims were deliberately killed after they were disarmed."

"On 5 March Serbian security forces launched similar police operations in Donje Prekaze and Lausa villages. They claimed these latter operations were in response to an early morning ambush in which two policemen were wounded."

"In Donje Prekaze village, the targets of the Serbian forces (who reportedly deployed artillery) were the homes of the extended family of Adem Shaban Jashari. He is an ethnic Albanian who had been tried in absentia in 1997 on terrorism charges related to attacks on Serbs, some fatal, and his alleged membership of the Kosovo Liberation Army (Ushtria Clirimtare e Kosoves -- UCK).

"Among those whom ethnic Albanian sources report were killed in Donje Prekaze include 13-year-old Valdet Zene Jashari, and 16-year-olds Murtez Zymer Jashari and Abdul Jashari. At least two women were also reportedly killed, including Adile Jashari (Adem Shaban Jashari's wife) and the wife of Zene Jashari. Serbian sources claimed that Adem Shaban Jashari had himself been killed, but ethnic Albanians report that he escaped and is in hiding."

"Although on 7 March Serbian police Colonel Ljubinko Cvetic reported that 26 'terrorists' had been killed during the police actions in Donje Prekaze, ethnic Albanian sources in Srbica reported that more than twice that number of bodies were returned to them by Serbian forces for burial. Serbian authorities also continue to insist that the police operations were directed against the UCK. Albanian sources, however, reported that among the remains handed over in Srbica were those of women and children, some of which had been burned beyond recognition."

"Amnesty International fears that some people who were killed may not have been involved in the fighting or may already have been disarmed while they were killed."

"We are concerned that the use of force by Serbian security forces appears to have far exceeded that permitted by international standards for law enforcement which is how the Serbs continue to classify their actions," Amnesty International said, adding: "Access to the region for journalists, independent monitors and others has been limited to trips chaperoned by Serbian authorities. Serbian police have also reportedly prevented ethnic Albanian human rights activists in Srbica from speaking with international organizations." The AI statement said: "In another development apparently aimed at thwarting independent scrutiny, on 6 March the Belgrade district attorney took unspecified "measures" against editors of five independent Serbian newspapers and other television stations which had been reporting on events from Kosovo province, stating they 'encouraged the actions of terrorist groups.'"

"Amnesty International believes that these measures were clearly intended to threaten independent reporting from Kosovo province, as the editors of the newspapers said that they had only reported factual information and statements credited to other individuals."

The statement notes that the six-nation Contact Group, originally established for Bosnia-Herzegovina, and comprising the foreign ministers from France, Germany, Italy, Russia, UK and the US, this week called on Serbian authorities to invite independent forensic experts to investigate the "very serious allegations of extra judicial killings and to prosecute anyone found responsible."

"This recommendation needs an immediate positive response from the Serbian side, and should get one if they truly have nothing to hide," AI said. "It also needs the international community to back it up by identifying qualified forensic experts and by providing resources so that they can begin work right away."

AI supported calls for a mission to Kosovo by the U.N High Commissioner for Human Rights, noting that although the post is currently vacant, the Commissioner already has a Special Rapporteur whose mandate includes Kosovo province.

The Contact Group also recommended that the prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia begin gathering information relating to the violence in Kosovo which may fall within its jurisdiction. The mandate of the tribunal includes prosecution for crimes against humanity and genocide, which are crimes that can be committed in peacetime as well as in war.