Serb forces `kill 300' in massacre

IN THE bloodiest massacre described so far by refugees fleeing Kosovo, Serb troops and police are reported to have murdered as many as 300 Albanians forced to leave their homes last Tuesday.

Described in chilling and consistent detail by survivors - mostly women and children - the mass murder was apparently carried out to avenge the killings of six Serb policemen. Refugees said that one week earlier, the Kosovo Liberation Army had ambushed a car in Meja village, killing five policemen and an officer.

According to the traumatised refugees now camped in Kukes, across the border from Kosovo, the day-long slaughter claimed the lives of more than 300 Albanian men trying to move with their families to safety in Albania.

The United Nations refugee agency said yesterday it had clear evidence that the Serbs massacred a large group of Kosovars this week. "There has certainly been a mass killing. I think that is beyond doubt," a UN High Commission for Refugees spokeswoman, Lyndall Sachs, said.

On Tuesday 27 April, thousands of people were ordered out of their homes in villages around the southern Kosovan town of Djakovica and told to head for Albania. Some travelled in tractor-trailers or by car; many more were on foot, carrying a bag or two. But expulsion was not the worst to face these latest victims of President Slobodan Milosevic's military machine. The minor road they were travelling passes through Meja, a small village of maybe 70 houses, where dozens of soldiers and police, some wearing masks, were gathered.

"They were nervous. They knew what they were doing," said Had Mehmeti, a woman whose husband, Ram, and 17-year-old son are missing, feared dead. She and others described how the Serb forces stopped their tractors, checking for men and ordering them out.

By 11am, more than 100 men had been detained, according to Muharrem Gaxharri, whose son Ibrahim, 38, was taken by the Serbs. "They showed them a wall. They had guns, and said go there. They did not explain," he added.

This continued all day. At 5pm Mrs Mehmeti and her family reached the village, hitching a ride in a stranger's tractor. There were many dead piled up in the centre of Meja beside the road. But still the Serbs wanted more.

"The Serbs forced my son to get out first - he was among some girls in the tractor, and they made another boy climb out, and then my husband. They pushed them over to another man, and made them stand in a line," Mrs Mehmeti continued. "There was no attempt to hide the bodies. I have no idea how many bodies were there, I was thinking about my husband and son, but there were a lot of them," she said.

Some 30 minutes later, the last of the convoy straggled through. "We saw a collection of bodies thrown on top of each other - maybe 300 people who were killed," said Zizi Salihu. She and her children estimated the pile to measure 4 by 3 metres.

"Nearby, we saw another 50 men, kneeling ... a policeman asked my husband if there was anyone behind us and he said no, because we were the last. One policeman told his friend to separate my husband and his cousin." Another officer ordered Kujtim, an 18-year-old cousin, to leave his family. But his sister Ruke began to cry, and a Serb took pity on them. "Hey guys, leave him alone, he is young and we don't need him."

So Kujtim was saved. The Serbs taunted the men as they were rounded up. "They were teasing my husband and his cousin, calling, `Come on sweetie', things like that," said Mrs Salihu. As she passed the men who had been detained, kneeling on the ground, she recognised a couple - the Mehmetis, father and son. She has no idea what happened to her own husband. "As we were leaving we heard some shots fired but we are not sure if they were really killed, or if the Serbs were just doing it to frighten us."

Both women are hoping for the best. "I don't know the fate of my husband and my son - maybe they are dead, maybe they are free," Mrs Mehmeti said.

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