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Yugoslavia: Bodies Of Three U.S. Citizens Found In Serbian Mass Grave

The bodies of three U.S. citizens -- all brothers, of ethnic Albanian origin -- were found in a mass grave in Serbia last week. The men were members of the Atlantic Brigade, a group of ethnic Albanians from North America who went to Kosovo to fight alongside the Kosovo Liberation Army. The discovery of their bodies has shocked the international community and Yugoslav authorities, and led Washington to call for explanations of their deaths. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos has the story.

Prague, 19 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Their hands tied with wire, their heads covered by black hoods, the three young American men lay at the top of a heap of bodies in a pit in the Yugoslav National Forest near the Serbian town of Petrovo Selo.

The ethnic Albanian brothers had all been shot in the chest at close range. If DNA tests confirm their identities, they will be the first U.S. citizens to be discovered in a Serbian mass grave.

Much remains unknown about the deaths of the three brothers, who left their Long Island home in New York in the spring of 1999 to fight with the Atlantic Brigade in Kosovo. When NATO forces were deployed inside Kosovo to police a cease-fire in June 1999, the three Bytyqi brothers -- 24-year-old Ylli, 23-year-old Agron, and 21-year-old Mehmet -- escorted their mother from Albania to her home in Prizren.

There, they learned of the efforts of Romany neighbors to help their mother when Serb paramilitary forces had overrun the province. At the time, Kosovar Albanians viewed many Roma as Serb collaborators during the war. A backlash followed, and many Roma were fleeing the province. The Bytyqi brothers agreed to help escort three Roma from Prizren to Serbia in gratitude for the assistance the Roma had given their mother.

But after crossing the Serbian border, the three were arrested for illegally entering the country. Natasha Kandic of the Humanitarian Law Center in Pristina says the brothers were sentenced to 15 days at the Prokuplje prison. Kandic, who became involved in the case at that time, was told by the local police chief that the case had been turned over to the Serbian Interior Ministry. On 8 July 1999 -- four days before their sentences were up -- the three brothers were handed over to two plainclothes officers and taken away in a white car. They were never seen alive again.

Kandic says the Interior Ministry in Belgrade was directly involved in the disappearance and subsequent deaths of the three brothers:

"In this case, the prison director said MUP (Interior Ministry Police) from Belgrade called and said somebody would come to take the brothers Bytyqi. Then, after two years we [learned] that MUP stopped the involvement of local officers from taking the brothers to Kosovo. So responsibility in this case is with MUP."

For two years, the Humanitarian Law Center and the Bytyqi family have been lobbying Yugoslav and U.S. officials to find out what happened to the brothers. Twenty-two-year-old Fatos Bytyqi, the youngest living sibling of the three brothers, is in Pristina, waiting to go to Serbia to identify the bodies of his brothers. Fatos, who lived in Prizren with his mother, says the last time he saw his brothers was in Albania, when they came to escort his mother home:

"I met them in Tirana. I stayed with them for one week when NATO troops were entering Kosovo. They were moving to Pristina. After that, I don't know what happened to them."

Fatos says that his mother was told to come to the Prokuplje prison to visit her sons. But when she arrived, she was met by Aleksandar Djordjevic, a prison warden, who said the brothers had already been set free and sent back to the United States. Fatos says he discovered only four months ago -- after bribing a local prison official -- that his brothers had been handed over to plainclothes officers.

Paul Denig, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, says the United States is continuing to pressure Serb authorities for more information on the brothers. He says their deaths constitute a "serious" crime, especially because they were killed after the war in Kosovo had ended.

"We have spoken with the [Serbian authorities] a number of times and made clear that we would like to see a full investigation and a full accounting. Those responsible for the deaths of our citizens should be brought to justice. And I think that our meeting with [Serbian Interior Minister Dusan] Mihajlovic shows that he sees too the importance of the situation and is proceeding with investigations."

Denig declined to speculate as to why the Bytyqi brothers were killed after the conflict had ended. But Kandic of the Humanitarian Law Center says she believes the reason is obvious:

"I cannot see any reasons [other than that] that they were American citizens, and at the time -- at the end of June and beginning of July -- Serbian propaganda against the U.S. was at a very high level. I think it was decision against the U.S., against the American citizens who came allegedly to Kosovo to fight against Serbia."

Officials in Serbia have denied any responsibility for the Bytyqi deaths. But government ministers have admitted that the men were in police hands when they disappeared and called their killing an "extraordinarily serious crime."