Kosovar refugees who have arrived in Macedonia in the past few days tell RFE/RL correspondent Kitty McKinsey that Serbian forces in Kosovo are increasingly using ethnic Albanians as human shields against NATO air strikes -- a practice condemned by the U.S. as a war crime.
Cegrane, Macedonia; 21 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As NATO air strikes inflict more and more damage on the Serbian army and special police, Kosovo refugees say the Serbs are increasingly using civilians as human shields against NATO attacks.
In the Cegrane refugee camp in Macedonia this week, refugees who recently arrived from all over Kosovo told our correspondent consistent accounts of being forced to dig trenches for the Serbs -- a violation of the internationally-accepted rules of war. They also tell of being rounded up in large groups to protect Serbian military installations with their bodies, which many experts say is a war crime.
The refugees say that in recent weeks, the Serbs have increasingly turned ethnic Albanians' apartments into barracks and military headquarters and have scattered their tanks and large weapons among the Kosovars' homes in hopes of eluding attack by NATO.
Ahmet Skoverca, a man who hid out in Urosevac (known to ethnic Albanians as Ferizaj) for seven weeks after being driven from his village (Prelez), says he and his neighbors in Urosevac were terrorized by Serbian forces hiding in their midst.
"That's the reason we fled, because they were hiding there. Our houses were filled with soldiers, paramilitaries, policemen, so we had to leave our homes."
Skoverca says he personally saw the Serbs using ethnic Albanians as human shields. He adds that the Serbs realize that even if they fail to protect themselves against NATO bombing, they will still score a propaganda victory because, as he puts it, "they will say NATO bombed and killed all the Albanians." The accounts suggest that the Serbs' tactics are the same all over Kosovo. Jaha Haliti, 54, left the capital Pristina just a few days ago. He says the Serbs are hiding both soldiers and equipment in the Albanians' homes and yards.
Arben Haziri, a 25-year-old who arrived in Macedonia four days ago, says that the main mosque in Urosevac (Ferizaj) has a Serb tank parked next to it.
"Not only in Ferizaj, but all over Kosovo, they are doing this. Not only in the houses, but even in the mosque they hide tanks."
Twenty-three-year-old Gezim Alidema says he managed to hide and avoid a Serb roundup of ethnic Albanians in the village of Pozharau, where he saw some 200 civilians herded around a Serbian police station. He says he personally heard the Serbs tell the civilians they were protection against NATO attacks, but doesn't know what happened to the "human shields" because he managed to escape.
Qeusere Taipi, a 50-year-old woman from the village of Ternovc Imadh, says she was exposed to a variety of inhumane treatment by the Serb military and special police against ethnic Albanian civilians.
She says that three weeks ago, Serbian police forced the entire population of her village out of their houses and into the mountains. When the villagers returned the next day, the Serbs robbed them of their money and jewelry before holding guns to the heads of all the men between the ages of 20 and 50 and forcing them to put on Serbian army uniforms.
Taipi says her only son -- 23-year-old Naim -- was one of those who was told he would be killed if he didn't put on a uniform. She says the Serbs then forced the Kosovar men to dig trenches, where the Serbs dug in their tanks and military vehicles. She says the Serbs' intention was to make the Kosovars a target for NATO after the Serb soldiers fled.
"All around my house are tanks in the ground, so we escaped from our home because we were afraid of NATO bombing.... The Serbs are doing this only to kill us because they escaped from there. No one was left, only the tanks."
Taipi says the Serbs forced the Kosovar men -- dressed in Serbian uniforms -- to march alongside them to cover their escape and take any fire that might come from rebel Albanians of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK). She estimates the number of Kosovars taken away in this manner at several hundred and does not know their final fate. She says her son was no longer among them because she managed to rescue him and they escaped together to Macedonia.
Refugees say the Serbs have been inventive in their plots to make the ethnic Albanians a target for NATO. Berat Mehmeti is a 50-year-old patriarch of an extended family of 25 from the village of Sojev (7 km from Urosevac). He told our correspondent earlier this week that the Serbs dug trenches around the homes where the Albanians were sheltering in Urosevac, placed old cars inside the trenches, and added long plastic tubes in hopes that NATO bombers would mistake the objects for tanks and blow up the Albanians.
The Serbs' recent actions against civilians have been harshly criticized by NATO and individual Western countries. David Scheffer, the United States' top official on war crimes, said this week that using civilians as a human shield is a war crime.
NATO spokesman Jamie Shea has repeatedly condemned the use of human shields to protect military equipment and troops. And a NATO official (unnamed), speaking from Brussels by telephone, told our correspondent in Macedonia that the Serbs' conduct described by the Cegrane refugees "needs to be not only condemned, but denounced, and investigated and probably punished by the war crimes tribunal" in The Hague.
Yugoslav Foreign Ministry spokesman Nebojsa Vujovic earlier this week denied allegations that Serb forces were using human shields in Kosovo. He called the reports "fabrications".