This horrific tale, which has not been independently confirmed, is the most controversial part of a long-awaited memoir by former Hague war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte. The book, "The Hunt: Me and the War Criminals," was published in Italian earlier this month, just months after Kosovo declared independence.
The allegations are based on secondhand journalistic accounts, but they have nevertheless set off a storm of controversy in the volatile Balkan region and beyond.
Del Ponte's co-author, Chuck Sudetic, is a U.S. journalist of Croatian descent who covered the Balkans for "The New York Times" from 1990 to 1995. In an interview with RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service, he defended the decision to include the organ-trafficking allegations in the book.
"The reason we wanted to put it in [the book] was because the people who survived the kidnap victims -- their families, the family members of these people -- have waited for nine years for some information," he said. "And certainly, more could have been forthcoming and more pressure could have been placed on Albanian authorities in Albania and the Kosovar authorities in Pristina to do more to investigate the fates of these people. Perhaps this will galvanize some kind of effort to do it."
Serbia and its ally Russia have called for an investigation into the claims. So has the New York-based group Human Rights Watch. But Del Ponte's former colleagues at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) say they looked into the allegations and found them to be unsubstantiated.
Kosovo's Justice Minister Nekibe Kelmendi also rejected the allegations, calling them "fabrications." Kelmendi told the French news agency AFP that if del Ponte "knew of such cases then she should be charged with withholding evidence and hiding these crimes."
Del Ponte, who stepped down from her tribunal post in January, currently serves as Switzerland's ambassador to Argentina. The Swiss government has ordered her not to speak publicly about the issue, and even forbid her from attending a presentation of her book in Milan. Prominent members of the Swiss parliament have called for her resignation.
The lingering question on the minds of many observers is: Why now? What motivated Del Ponte to reveal these spectacular allegations, which she first learned of in 2003, at a time when Kosovo has declared its independence and looming Serbian parliamentary elections have resulted in mounting tensions throughout the Balkans?
In a recent interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Heikelina Verrijn Stuart, a Dutch lawyer and expert on The Hague tribunal, offered a possible explanation.
"Del Ponte was so angry with the Americans for not cooperating in investigating members of the Kosovo Liberation Army," she said. "She used these dirty tales of horrible crimes as an illustration. She really crossed the line."
Del Ponte has long complained that UN authorities in Kosovo prevented her from adequately investigating alleged crimes by Kosovar Albanians. According to the book, the ICTY received information from "a team of credible journalists" that in the summer of 1999 Kosovo Albanians had transported between 100 and 300 abducted people across the border to northern Albania where they were locked up in warehouses and other facilities.
Younger and fitter captives were kept well-fed, examined by doctors, and moved to locations including a shack behind a yellow house south of the town of Burrel. According to the journalists' sources, whom the journalists would not reveal, a room in the house was turned into a makeshift clinic where doctors removed the captives' organs. The organs were then smuggled out of the country via Rinas Airport near Tirana and sold abroad.
Authorities in Belgrade, still seething from Kosovo's formal declaration of independence in February, have been quick to seize on the allegations. Serbian prosecutors say they are consistent with their own investigation of the UCK.
"There are some facts [related to this case] that we discovered while investigating the Kosovo Liberation Army," said Bruno Vekaric, spokesman for the Serbian Prosecutor's Office. "In the course of our investigation, we learned that Serbian nationals were transported in two trucks from Kosovo to Albania. There are two versions of what happened next. One version is that they were kept in a camp. And the other is that they had their organs taken."
Not Ethnically Motivated
Co-author Sudetic says that, contrary to initial reports about the book's revelations, not all of the hundreds allegedly abducted had their organs taken.
"Perhaps several dozen, according to the sources, fell victim to this organ-transplant operation that they asserted was going on," Sudetic says. "It wasn't the great number. It wasn't 300. It wasn't 100."
Sudetic also says that, contrary to some initial reports, the operation does not appear to have been ethnically motivated. Among the victims were Serbs, people from the former Soviet Union, and members of other nationalities including Albanians. Some of the victims were trafficked women, he says.
"It appears that according to the sources, the operation was not just targeted at Serbs," he says. "The sources that the journalists relied upon mentioned other victims, including women from other countries, including at least one Albanian, so it was broader than just Serbs."
The ICTY began investigating the claims in 2002 and 2003, and located the yellow house near Burrel, which had since been painted white. At the house, according to Del Ponte's book, they found "a used syringe, two empty drip bags crusted in dirt, and spent medicine vials, some of them for a muscle relaxer routinely used during surgery."
Moreover, in the room where the organs were allegedly extracted, a "forensic chemical spray revealed blood splatters along the walls and floor...except for a clear area of the floor about six feet long and two feet wide."
Sudetic says investigators considered the physical evidence to be powerful.
"What we had developed was a lead to kidnappings in Kosovo that led across the border into Albania," Sudetic says. "And that developed into other sources that provided information about this operation, including details about driving organs to Rinas Airport near Tirana and other details that led to a particular house. And in this particular house they found what I think most people would agree on its face was very compelling circumstantial physical evidence that a crime had indeed occurred."
'Very Sound Reasons'
Sudetic adds, however, that for several reasons the ICTY was unable to pursue its investigation further.
The tribunal "did not take the investigation further for a couple of very sound reasons," he says. "First, the jurisdiction, the temporal jurisdiction -- and what that means is the time limitation upon which the ICTY could engage in prosecutions -- ended with the end of the military conflict in Kosovo. And that was in June of 1999 with the arrival of NATO. Any events subsequent to that were not within the authority of the ICTY to prosecute. So it was outside their jurisdiction. Second, the journalists had not given the ICTY the names, identities of their sources. So the ICTY investigators were basically at a dead end."
Officials at The Hague tribunal, however, dispute this. Olga Karvan, a spokeswoman for the ICTY, says investigators "followed the allegations" and that "no substantial evidence" was found.
Del Ponte's former spokeswoman, Florence Hartmann, recently told the French-language Swiss daily "Le Temp" that Del Ponte "was presenting things which were impossible to prove as established facts," and called her ex-boss's actions "irresponsible and undignified."