Liberation Of Kosovo: War Crimes: Killers have slunk away into shadows of Serbia

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The Independent Online
THE FOREIGN Secretary Robin Cook could not have made the situation clearer. To rejoin the international community, Serbia must surrender President Slobodan Milosevic, and other war criminals. No Milosevic, no henchmen - and no western aid to rebuild a battered country.

But, beyond the tough talk and moral outrage, how likely is it that the men who committed the atrocities in Serbia's name - now being unearthed on hillsides and burnt-out villages all over Kosovo - will have to answer for their crimes?

Comparisons with Bosnia are inevitable. The United Nations' War Crimes Tribunal was set up to hunt down those guilty of murder, massacre and rape during the Bosnian conflict. The most glaring difference is that then Mr Milosevic, though his hands were dirty, was not a named war criminal but a courted crucial player in the political horse trading that led to peace.

There are other startling differences. In its early years, the Tribunal in the Hague was generally judged useless. Those at the top of its wanted list - Radovan Karadzic, former leader of the Bosnian Serbs, and Ratko Mladic, former commander of the Bosnian Serb army, implicated in the massacre at Srebrenica - swanned around the Serb sector of Bosnia, unchallenged.

Nato forces, policing Bosnia and constrained by the lack of consensus among the allies, made few if any moves against the killers. The tribunal grew teeth only after the arrival of the feisty and focused Canadian judge Louise Arbour, who took over as chief prosecutor in 1996. Since then a third of the 55 men indicted for war crimes in Bosnia have been arrested, though Karadzic and Mladic remain free.

A more mature and experienced tribunal has moved far faster this time. Its investigators, some veterans of Bosnia, were gathering testimonies from survivors, even in the refugee camps, and are in Kosovo now sifting the soil around mass graves and examining the charred remains of villages for forensic evidence. Even so, they may stand even less chance this time of nailing the killers.

In Bosnia, the Serbs accused of atrocities remained within its Serb sector. With the tribunal initially weak they became complacent. They were therefore easier pickings for the snatch squads when Ms Arbour arrived. She forced troops into action by naming and shaming their governments.

But this time the torturers and the killers have fled back into Serbia, melting into the rank and file retreat. Once back in Serbia, the pariah state, they are beyond the tribunal's grasp, at least until Milosevic is ousted. Then his successor would have to choose to hand him and other accused criminals over to the Hague. Both propositions look highly unlikely, even in the medium term.

The men who ran the torture chamber discovered in Pristina last week did not bother to hide the appalling paraphernalia of the trade. But other Serb killers have taken time to obliterate evidence - even digging up bodies from mass graves for burning - and covering their tracks as they leave. Many of those who would accuse them have, of course, been silenced for good.

The clinical "professionalism" of the Serb mass murderer was evident in Bosnia, but there are signs he has become even more adept.

Tribunal staff are already overwhelmed by the speed at which reports of new atrocities are flooding in. They do not want to raise unrealistic hopes, knowing that among the universal misery, murder and injustice they will soon have to focus on atrocities with the best chance of conviction.

That can hardly be done without firing a sense of intense injustice. For almost every village now has unmarked graves or corpses for the finding. Most are not on a massive scale, 13 here, four there, a lone charred body in a shell that was once a house.

There is, thankfully, no time limit to an indictment. The accused can be tried months or years down the line, apprehended perhaps on a brief trip out of Serbia. The indicted will be safe only in a few rogue states who choose not to recognise the court in the Hague.

Mr Milosevic of course is unlikely to take any wild chances with overseas travel. And realistically, despite his indictment, the arrest of a serving president would be a source of acute international embarrassment.

Whether the tribunal retains its resolve to pursue the killers also depends on who replaces Ms Arbour as tribunal chief prosecutor. Last month, in the crowded refugee camps, she promised the Kosovo Albanians that there would be no deals with the Serbs.

To the dismay of her many admirers Ms Arbour is returning to Canada to become a Supreme Court judge.

How many killers are eventually hunted down will depend on finding a replacement who has, in equal measure, Ms Arbour's acute sense of justice, tenacity, and courage.