'I counted 24 dead in the hills above Kosovo'

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The Independent Online
AROUND every corner in the village of Racak, there seems to be a body. One ethnic Albanian man lay in the courtyard at the centre of his family compound, his face completely obliterated. The villagers said he had been shot at close range. "We could not even find his teeth," one said.

On Friday, when firing erupted in this corner of southern Kosovo, unarmed international monitors and journalists could not get near. What they saw yesterday sickened everyone from William Walker down. "Horrendous" was how the American head of the monitoring mission run by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) described it. "It's hard to find words when I see bodies like this, shot execution-style," he said. "It looks like it was done by people who have no value for human life."

Last night President Bill Clinton condemned "the massacre of civilians by the Serb security forces" in the "strongest possible terms", and Washington called an urgent Nato meeting, clearly reviving the threat of airstrikes. The UN's chief war crimes prosecutor, Louise Arbour, will go to Kosovo. This is not only the worst violence since the Serbs agreed to a cease- fire last October, but the worst in nearly two years of armed conflict in the province.

Past the smoking ruins of a house destroyed by artillery fire, the bodies of three brothers lay together on the hillside. But further up the steep frost-covered hill came the true horror of what had happened.

In a culvert high in the hills, I counted 24 bodies almost on top of each other, mostly middle-aged men and older. Bullet casings were just a few feet away. These too seemed to have been shot at close range: one man had a neat hole in his temple, surrounded by powder burns. His brains and congealed blood lay all around. Next to him, his car registration document identified him as Adem Mehmeti, aged 21.

Further on were yet more bodies. I counted 30; monitors later said the total was 45. Several had their eyes gouged out or their heads smashed in, and one had been decapitated. The Serbian authorities said they had been on a search operation when they had encountered hostile fire. Those killed, they maintained, were in uniform: members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

Racak is, indeed, in an area where the KLA is strong and organised. Yesterday, when the bodies were discovered, about a dozen black-uniformed KLA military police were guarding the village. But relatives of the dead denied that any of those killed were armed, or KLA members, and I saw no military uniforms on the bodies.

I spoke to one of the five survivors, who pointed at a bullet hole in his jacket pocket. The security forces, he said, had come while he and his son had been asleep in his house during the late afternoon. The police had taken all the men they could find, and searched them, removing any money.

Then the men were taken to the hills: "The police told us to run," he said. "As soon as we started to run, they started to shoot us." His son was shot in the foot, but they managed to reach safety. They waited among the dead bodies until they heard the Serbian armed vehicles leave at 6am yesterday.

Whether the unarmed OSCE monitors can continue to operate after this remains to be seen. On Friday, a British monitor and his interpreter were slightly wounded while near a Serb convoy, apparently by a KLA sniper who believed they were siding with the enemy.

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, urged all sides to avoid "a spiral of reprisals", but the saddest words yesterday came from a man whose 20-year-old son was killed: "I don't know how the Albanian nation in Kosovo is going to survive."