Liberation of Kosovo: Old men and children, shot then burned

WE KNEW there would be bodies, many of them, but we thought they would be discovered in mass graves. No one was prepared for this. They were no longer even bodies, just skeletons and parts of skeletons, scattered around the floor of a stone room in this village near the southern Kosovo town.

There had been at least 20 of them, crammed into a kind of outhouse, apparently shot through the head by Serbian paramilitary police who then set the place ablaze. Some of the victims may even have survived till later, when starving dogs began to tear the bodies apart.

Dutch peace-keepers said a KLA commander had also told them about two other houses on the road from Prizren to Orahovac, in central Kosovo, where lay the bodies of more murdered Kosovo Albanians. One was said to house the remains of 11 children, the other the corpses of 30 old men

Villagers said the killing in Velika Krusa probably took place on 25 and 26 March, a day or two after the start of Nato's bombing campaign. They said the paramilitaries drove most residents from their homes but held more than 20 back.

One distraught villager said three of his cousins detained by the paramilitaries were among the dead. Villagers returning to their homes yesterday, held back by a Nato cordon, wept and screamed as they realised what had happened to their missing relatives.

"It was a horror, just a horror," said the Dutch soldier who discovered the bodies yesterday while looking for mines or booby traps. He could barely get the words out. "There was a leg here, an arm there, a torso. You can't tell whether they were men, women or children. I was expecting the worst in Kosovo. But not this. Nothing like this. It was not pretty," he said.

For him, and journalists who came later, the horror took a minute or two to register, as bones distinguished themselves from other charred debris. This looked like a black-and-white photograph that had yellowed with age. Then the soldier pointed to the first skeleton, apparently intact, just inside the door. Then a rib cage caught the eye, then a leg bone, then a skull.

The Dutch and German soldiers who shut off the site would not let journalists investigate how the people had been killed. But a Dutch officer, Colonel Pieter Van Den Aker, said: "They were shot, then set on fire." Soldiers of the Dutch artillery battalion are serving as part of the German force assigned to secure southern Kosovo.

The charred skeletons were inside a room of about 20ft square, burnt- out but for an old steel stove. Only the stone walls, once white but now almost black, remained. In the patio between the building and the nearby house, two other intact skeletons lay beside a tractor. Their posture, arms and legs protruding upwards, suggested they may have been alive when they were set alight. It was a posture familiar to journalists who had seen Buddhists set themselves on fire.

"It was a sad day for us, a very sad day," said Colonel Van Den Aker.

Some survivors say the notorious Serb paramilitary warlord, Zeljko Raznatovic, known as Arkan, was the man behind the massacre. He and his feared "Tigers" have been accused of perpetrating a string of atrocities in Kosovo. He denied it yesterday.

"I only defended my people," he said. "No Tiger did even one of these atrocities and [we] did not kill any innocent civilians. We only kill in a set fight."

Asked who was responsible, he replied: "How can I know, when I am living in Belgrade?"