Liberation of Kosovo: Prisoners - `Disappeared' are held in Serb jails

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THEY WERE the families of the disappeared. Pale-faced, fearful and desperate, they were queuing yesterday outside a shabby government building for any news about their loved ones. Some carried photographs of their missing relatives, others had written the details on scraps of paper which they clutched tightly.

"The police came at night wearing masks and carrying guns and took away my son," cried Jiwat Shabani, an engineer from Mitrovica. "I went to the police for information but they tell me nothing. I don't know if my son is alive or dead. All my family is crazy with worry."

Aid groups and charities have long feared that thousands of Kosovo Albanians seized by the police or army have been taken into Serbia where they are being held in prisons. The vast majority were arrested without charge, taken away because they were suspected of being an intellectual, a politician or a else a supporter of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Many were taken simply because their faces did not fit.

For months, the families of these prisoners have not heard anything. But now, in an extraordinary and unlikely development, the Yugoslav authorities are providing these families with basic details such as the name of the prison in which their relative is being held.

The desperate search for this news begins in the courtyard of a building belonging to the Yugoslav Ministry of Justice in Pristina, Kosovo's capital. Here, more than 10 days after the Russians and K-For troops entered the city and took control, Yugoslav officials are still at work, albeit under Nato protection. Yesterday the relatives started queuing early and by midday the courtyard held dozens of people, all recounting horrific stories of how their family members were snatched from them. "My husband, Ahmed, was taken because he was a politician," said Baceme Damiri, from a village 30 miles from Pristina. "He was held in the local police station but when the Nato bombing started he was taken elsewhere - I don't know where." Everyone in the queue had a similar story.

Aid groups and campaigners see the Yugoslav decision to offer information, however limited, as a step forward. Brendan Paddy, a spokesman for Amnesty International, the human rights campaign group which is setting up an office in Pristina, said: "We have asked for a full list of the names of the prisoners they have and where they are being held but they have said they cannot because they do not have a full list. We would be happy with whatever information they have.

"They have told us, for example, that Dr Flora Brovina, president of the Albanian Women's League, is alive. They have said she is in a prison. It is a step. For the first time the Serb authorities have admitted that they have taken people back into Serbia. When we asked them why they said they had done it to ensure the safety of the prisoners."

Mr Paddy believes most of these prisoners have not been charged and should be released immediately. If not, they should be brought to trial swiftly.

n A directory of almost 20,000 heads of families of Kosovo refugees in 23 countries was published yesterday. The Kosovo Family Finder is at