Articles on the Kosovo Conflict


Kosovo Killings Called a Massacre
Some Victims Shot While on Their Knees
By R. Jeffrey Smith
The Washington Post
March 17, 1999

An independent forensic report into the killings of 40 ethnic Albanians in the Kosovo village of Racak in January has found that the victims were unarmed civilians executed in an organized massacre, some of them forced to kneel before being sprayed with bullets, according to Western sources familiar with the report.

The findings by Finnish forensic experts, set to be released Wednesday in Pristina, the Kosovo capital, contradict claims by officials of the Serb-led Yugoslav government that the dead were armed ethnic Albanian separatists or civilians accidentally caught in a cross-fire between government security forces and separatist rebels. Western officials have blamed the killings on government police.

Because of the extreme sensitivity of the case, leaders of the European Union, which sponsored the probe, have asked the forensic team to withhold some of its most potentially inflammatory findings when its members appear at a news conference Wednesday, officials said.

The request, they say, was made out of concern that the results will further polarize the two sides in the Kosovo conflict and impede the Belgrade government's acceptance of a peace agreement for the Serbian province at talks underway in France.

One Western official said the German government, which holds the rotating chairmanship of the European Union, had ordered the Finnish team not to release a summary of its probe, which includes details about how some of the victims appeared to have died. Instead, at Bonn's request, the team agreed to release only the voluminous summaries of autopsies it helped conduct on bodies of the victims.

The killings on Jan. 15 at Racak, an ethnic Albanian village southwest of Pristina, outraged the world and became a turning point in the year-long conflict between security forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army, the main ethnic Albanian rebel group fighting for Kosovo's independence from Serbia, the dominant republic in the Yugoslav federation.

NATO leaders condemned the killings at the time and renewed their threat to carry out punitive airstrikes against Yugoslav military targets. Days later, both sides in the conflict agreed to take part in peace talks in France sponsored by the United States, Russia and four west European nations.

On Monday, ethnic Albanian negotiators pledged to sign a draft peace agreement that would provide substantial autonomy to Kosovo, while Belgrade officials have continued to object not only to the language of the proposed political settlement, but also to a provision mandating deployment of 28,000 NATO-led troops in Kosovo to enforce its terms.

The forensic team's investigation, based on an examination of evidence at the site and autopsies conducted jointly with Yugoslav government pathologists, determined that 22 of the victims were slain in a gully on the outskirts of Racak, precisely where their bodies were found on the morning of Jan. 16. The gully is so narrow that these victims could only have been shot deliberately at close range, the sources said.

Although the bodies of some other victims in the village were moved into homes or a mosque before international observers arrived, the forensic experts were able to determine where all but four of the 40 victims had died. From the pattern of the bullet wounds on their bodies and other evidence -- such as their civilian clothing and possessions -- the team found no reason to conclude they were killed accidentally or were members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, said the sources, who asked not to be identified.

Western officials say the team found that the angle of the bullet wounds in the victims' bodies was consistent with a scenario in which some of them were forced to kneel before being sprayed with gunfire from automatic weapons. This "spray pattern" finding is among the sensitive details that officials said may be withheld at Wednesday's news conference. Wounds on the bodies of some other victims evidently suggest they were shot while running away, the sources said.

On Jan. 16, U.S. special envoy William Walker, head of an international monitoring mission in Kosovo, described the killings as a massacre by government forces, and Yugoslav officials ordered him out of the country. The order was later suspended after the West threatened punitive action.

Western sources subsequently disclosed that telephone conversations between top Yugoslav and Serbian officials about the slayings showed that the officials explicitly sought to contrive an explanation for the killings that would shift blame away from security forces.

The Yugoslav government invited the Finnish forensic team to conduct the investigation at a time when many countries were demanding an inquiry by the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. Yugoslavia has refused to cooperate with the tribunal or recognize the legitimacy of its mandate over matters on Yugoslav territory, so the Finns were accepted as compromise.

Officials in Belgrade, aware of the potential impact the forensic report might have on foreign sentiment about the conduct of its army and paramilitary forces, have mounted a sustained propaganda campaign to cast the forensic team's conclusions in a favorable, and, according to the sources, highly misleading light.

An article in today's editions of Politika, a Belgrade newspaper connected to the government, claimed for example that the team had established that all the victims all had fired weapons before their deaths and that the bodies of all of them had been moved. The chief public prosecutor for Serbia, Dragisa Krsmanovic, alleged similarly last week that forensic tests showed the victims all had been shot from a distance. As a result, he said, government troops could not be prosecuted for their actions in Racak.

The forensic team searched but found no evidence to support these claims. On the other hand, its findings cast doubt on the assertion of some Western officials, including Walker, that the bodies had been deliberately mutilated by government troops.

Although 45 people reportedly were slain at Racak, the Finnish team was given access to only 40 bodies. The investigators learned that at least five more bodies, including those of at least two women, were removed from the area and presumably were buried in a cemetery south of Racak, along with as many as seven others who apparently were wounded during the assault and died later.

Correspondent Peter Finn in Pristina contributed to this report.


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