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Yugoslavia: Investigators Of Racak Killings Must Not Be Impeded

London, 19 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Amnesty International (AI) says those responsible for killing some 45 ethnic Albanians in the Kosovar village of Racak last Friday may never be brought to justice unless independent investigators are immediately allowed to do their work.

The human-rights organization has also expressed fears for the safety of the villagers still in Racak and in at least two nearby villages to which the recent violence appears to have spread.

The bodies of the victims --including three women, a 12-year-old child and several elderly men-- were found three days ago in and around Racak by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's verification mission. Racak is 30 kilometers south of Kosovo's capital, Pristina.

An AI statement says this "brutal crime is chillingly similar to the first reports of large-scale killings of ethnic Albanian civilians less than one year ago." The statement adds: "If history is not to repeat itself, it is essential to find out what happened in Racak on January 15 and bring those responsible to justice."

The chief prosecutor of the international war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia, Louise Arbour, was yesterday stopped from entering Kosovo at the Yugoslav border with Macedonia. Arbour, speaking from the border area, insisted that her investigators be given access to Racak.

"I will not know who is criminally responsible for the massacre that was committed at Racak until my investigators are granted access. It's therefore not clear who's responsible for that, but it's very clear who's preventing us from ascertaining the truth."

AI says that, given the present situation in Kosovo, domestic investigations cannot be regarded as impartial. The authorities should therefore do, in the statement's words, "everything in their power to protect the site of the killings, and to preserve the victims' bodies to allow for thorough independent and impartial autopsies to be performed."

AI also says the victims appeared to be local villagers, possibly with some members of the ethnic-Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) among them. As villagers fled their homes, some men were reportedly arrested by Serb police and taken to the nearby Stimlje police station. AI says it is "extremely concerned those arrested may be tortured and ill-treated in police custody."

The organization urges "Serbian and Federal Yugoslav authorities to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect the civilian population, both in Racak and in surrounding villages, and to ensure that their security forces do the same." The statement says the authorities should "cooperate fully with the independent investigators and provide them with all information concerning the police and security forces' operations."

The Racak massacre has prompted fears that the cease-fire in Kosovo --to which Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic agreed in October under the threat of NATO air strikes-- is now on the verge of collapse. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook called yesterday for renewed peace efforts, but warned that NATO military action is still an option.

"It's important that we focus on getting momentum behind the political track, and try to achieve real agreement between both sides. At the same time, I'm also conscious that only the credible threat of military force, if necessary, is actually likely to engage both sides in that dialogue."

Amnesty International estimates that more than 2,000 people have died since the armed conflict erupted in Kosovo early last year (Feb. 1998). It says some 700 people --the majority ethnic Albanians, but also including over 100 Serbs-- remain unaccounted for. Other estimates of the death toll in Kosovo are somewhat lower.