Serbs Tried To Cover Up Massacre;
Kosovo Reprisal Plot Bared by Phone Taps
By R. Jeffrey Smith
The Washington Post
January 28, 1999
RACAK, Yugoslavia, January 27, 1999
The attack on this Kosovo village that led to the killing of 45 ethnic Albanian civilians 12 days ago came at the orders of senior officials of the Serb-led Belgrade government who then orchestrated a coverup following an international outcry, according to telephone intercepts by Western governments.
Angered by the slaying of three soldiers in Kosovo, the officials ordered government forces to "go in heavy" in a Jan. 15 assault on Racak to search out ethnic Albanian guerrillas believed responsible for the slayings, according to Western sources familiar with the intercepts.
As the civilian death toll from the assault mounted and in the face of international condemnation, Yugoslavia's deputy prime minister and the general in command of Serbian security forces in Kosovo systematically sought to cover up what had taken place, according to telephone conversations between the two.
Details of the conversations, which were made available by Western sources, shed new light on the attack and its aftermath, which have again brought NATO to the brink of confrontation with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic over his government's repression of separatist ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. The calls show that the assault on Racak was monitored closely at the highest levels of the Yugoslav government and controlled by the senior Serbian military commander in Kosovo -- a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.
The bodies of 45 ethnic Albanian civilians were discovered on a hillside outside the village by residents and international observers shortly after the government forces withdrew.
"We have to have a full, independent investigation of this to get to the bottom of it," a senior Clinton administration official told staff writer Dana Priest in Washington. "Those responsible have to be brought to justice."
In a series of telephone conversations, Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic and Serbian Interior Ministry Gen. Sreten Lukic, expressed concern about international reaction to the assault and discussed how to make the killings look as if they had resulted from a battle between government troops and members of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army.
The objective was to challenge claims by survivors -- later supported by international monitors -- that the victims had been killed in an execution-style massacre and to defuse pressures for a NATO military response.
Sainovic is the highest-ranking official in the Yugoslav government responsible for Kosovo matters and has been present at most negotiations with top Western officials; several Western officials said they understand that he reports to Milosevic on Kosovo issues. "We often see him as the link between the government in Belgrade and the administration down here" in Kosovo, one official said.
Yugoslav army and Serbian Interior Ministry troops have waged an 11-month campaign against ethnic Albanian guerrillas seeking independence for Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs 9 to 1 but Serbs hold all the power. At least 1,000 civilians have been killed in the conflict.
Under an October accord imposed on Milosevic with the threat of NATO airstrikes, the Yugoslav leader agreed to withdraw some of his forces from Kosovo, and the conflict eased as both sides maintained - - albeit sporadically -- an unofficial truce.
That changed in this farming village when army and Interior Ministry troops converged on the area. As a result of the attack, the village has been transformed into a ghostly place, bathed in dense, damp fog that cloaks ice-covered thickets and leafless trees. Many of its houses were shattered by direct fire from three T-55 army tanks. Now there are only a few dogs, a handful of braying donkeys and scores of other barnyard animals where more than 1,500 ethnic Albanians once lived.
One source familiar with the phone calls between military leaders in Kosovo and officials in Belgrade on Jan. 15 and succeeding days said they show that "the intent was to go in heavy" to find three guerrillas whom government security officials blamed for the ambush of an Interior Ministry convoy on Jan. 8 southwest of Racak in which three soldiers died. "It was a search and destroy mission" with explicit approval in Belgrade, the source said.
As tank and artillery fire and the chatter of machine-guns echoed off the hills surrounding Racak, Sainovic called Lukic from Belgrade, according to Western sources. Sainovic was aware that the assault was underway, and he wanted the general to tell him how many people had been killed. Lukic replied that as of that moment the tally stood at 22, the sources said.
In calls over the following days, Sainovic and Lukic expressed concern about the international outcry and discussed how to make the killings look like the result of a pitched battle. Their efforts to cover up what occurred continued, the Western sources said.
One measure Sainovic advocated in his calls was to seal Kosovo's border with Macedonia to prevent Louise Arbour, a top U.N. war crimes investigator, from entering. Arbour was turned back. Another was to demand that Interior Ministry troops fight to regain control of the killing site and reclaim the bodies. Serbian forces launched a second assault on the village Jan. 17, and the following day they seized the bodies from a mosque and transferred them to a morgue in Pristina, the provincial capital.
A third was to explore whether the killings could be blamed on an independent, armed group that supposedly came to the region and attacked the residents of Racak after government troops had left. Sainovic was told that making this claim was not feasible.
Shortly after the attack, a Yugoslav government spokesman said that the bodies found on the hillside were armed, uniformed members of the Kosovo Liberation Army. The account was challenged by international inspectors and journalists who arrived on the scene Jan. 16 and found dozens of corpses on the ground, all in civilian clothes.
Government officials later alleged that some of the victims were accidentally caught in a cross-fire between security forces and the rebels or were deliberately slain by the guerrillas to provoke international outrage. But survivors, diplomatic observers and rebels who were in the area at the time of the killings say that little shooting occurred inside the town early in the the assault and that no battle was underway at around 1 p.m., when most of the victims are said to have died. These sources say that Kosovo Liberation Army forces were not deployed near a gully where at least 23 of the bodies were found, and that none of the trees in the area bore bullet marks suggestive of a battle.
A team of forensic pathologists that arrived in Kosovo from Finland last Friday, a week after the killings, has found nothing to contradict these accounts, according to a Western official. "A picture is beginning to emerge from the autopsies, and it is a tragic one," said another source, explaining that the types of wounds on the victims indicate that they were "humiliated" before being fired on from several directions.
The last of 40 autopsies were to be completed today, and the Finnish pathologists say their final report will be ready by next week. But their preliminary conclusion is consistent with an account given on Jan. 16 by Imri Jakupi, 32, a resident of Racak who said he escaped death by running into the woods. He said that he and other men had been rounded up by security forces in house-to-house searches and ordered to walk along a ravine before troops "started shooting from the hills at us. . . . Firing came from all over."
According to Shukri Buja, 32, the commander of guerrilla forces in the area, Racak was home to many rebels, as government security officials suspected. But he said that most of them were driven into the hills early Jan. 15 by a wave of artillery and tank fire. "We were shot at from three sides . . . and they moved their forces during the day, so it was very hard for us to come down into the village," Buja said.
Villagers told inspectors and reporters at the scene on Jan. 17 that many of the dead were last seen alive in the hands of Interior Ministry troops, who said they were under arrest. Many of the troops involved in the operation wore black ski masks, but survivors said they recognized some local policemen and Serbian civilians in uniforms.
Jakupi and another Racak resident, Rem Shabani, told reporters that they overheard some of what the troops were saying on their walkie-talkies as two groups of men were being led away from the village.
"How many of them are there?" one soldier asked. When the reply came back as 29, Shabani recalled, the order given was: "Okay, bring them up." Yakupi said he then overheard another order: "Now get ready to shoot." He fled before the shots rang out.