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Yugoslavia: U.S. Official Says Serbs Commiting War Crimes In Kosovo

Skopje, 5 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. government expert on war crimes says Serbian police and army actions against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in recent days constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possibly genocide.

David Scheffer, U.S. Ambassador-at-large for War Crimes Issues, has just spent two days and one night at a Macedonian border crossing interviewing more than 100 ethnic Albanian refugees who had fled Kosovo in the last week.

In an interview over the weekend with our correspondent in Skopje, he said a clear pattern of Serb crimes has emerged from the refugees' accounts.

In his words "there is no question" that the Serbs are committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing, trying to drive the entire Kosovo Albanian population of nearly two million people from the province.

In addition, he said, many of the Serbs' actions point to genocide -- a systematic policy aimed at exterminating a race. "When you take the totality of what is occurring in Kosovo, and you look at the history of this conflict and also the character of the leadership in Serbia, and what they have said and what their intentions have been in the past elsewhere, as well as their stated intentions here, we believe that there are indicators that genocide is occurring in Kosovo."

Scheffer said that what is most impressive is the similarity of the accounts told by the refugees. "The thing that I think should be clearly understood from my work here is the remarkable consistency in what refugees are telling me. They are relating to me stories that are consistent with what other refugees who don't know them, who I pick at random 300 yards away at the other end of the camp, are telling me. And there is a sequence of events that basically take place when the Serbs attack."

Refugees interviewed by our correspondent at the border have made comparisons between what the Serbs are doing and acts committed by the forces of Nazi Germany during the Second World War. And Scheffer agrees the Serbs actions are, in his words, "Nazi-like."

The Kosovar Albanians tell of whole streets systematically emptied of their inhabitants at gun point, forced marches, people robbed of all their valuables before being crammed into train cars and transported from their cities and villages.

At Kosovo's borders with Macedonia, Montenegro or Albania, Kosovar Albanians are simply dumped out into the mud with no food, no water, no warm clothes or shelter.

Apparently in a large majority of cases, the refugees do not even have passports or identity documents. The Serbs are routinely taking these away in a last blow aimed at stripping the Kosovars of their very identities and trying to ensure that they never return.

Nearly all of the people flooding to the Macedonian border in the last 10 days have been women, children and elderly people. Vast numbers of men aged 16 to 65 are missing.

The chief prosecutor for the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Justice Louise Arbour, has put the Yugoslav and Serbian leadership on notice that her investigations will be aimed primarily at establishing the culpability of the top leadership.

Scheffer says the tribunal cannot possibly aim to punish the vast number of crimes committed in this conflict but may indict individual soldiers in the field as a way of establishing the guilt of their military or political superiors. Scheffer issued a warning that even Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic should not feel immune from prosecution on charges of war crimes or genocide if evidence of his responsibility is established. "Prosecutor Arbour should go wherever the evidence leads her. We have absolutely no policy of immunizing anyone from the investigations of prosecutor Arbour. We never try to persuade her to not prosecute anyone or to investigate anyone. We encourage her to go wherever the evidence leads."

Scheffer admitted it could take one or two years to prepare indictments against Serb officials for crimes committed in Kosovo, but he said they will come.

For now, the top priority, in Scheffer's words, is the defeat of the Yugoslav army and special police forces, the establishment of peace and stability in the region, and the return of Kosovar Albanians to their homes.

He said the international community had an especially serious duty to insure the Kosovars go back to the homes they were expelled from. As he concludes, "the 21st century simply cannot begin with an outrageous Nazi-like event in Kosovo that insults every civilized government on Earth."