Serbs make truth casualty of war in Kosovo

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The Independent Online
IT IS the kind of infuriating line that Serbian officials took during the war in Bosnia. "Can you tell us why you killed all these people?" some journalists asked a lowly Serb official in Pristina as fresh reports of killings by paramilitary police came in.

"Because they were terrorists," was the mechanical reply.

"Why do you call them terrorists?"

"Because they did many bad things."

"What kind of bad things?"

"Please, come back tomorrow and maybe you will have more information."

Once again, Serbs are being accused of massacres, this time in their own Albanian-dominated province of Kosovo, and again they are displaying their uncanny ability to make the outside world think the worst of them.

While the onslaught on Albanian villages has been carried out with terrifying efficiency, the propaganda effort to convince the world that this is a simple anti-terrorist operation has been almost comical in its ineptitude.

Why has the Red Cross been denied access to the combat areas? Because, we were told by interior ministry spokesman Ljubinko Svetic, international aid organisations have been caught smuggling weapons in the past. Why were there so many dead women and children? Because the terrorists had shot their own families to prevent them running away.

The message being delivered to the Serbs themselves about Kosovo is straightforward - armed terrorists threatening to declare war. But for the foreign media the approach is subtler. For the past week we have been treated to a classic good cop-bad cop routine, with the Belgrade interior ministry portrayed as unfeeling, distant bureaucrats who do not understand our needs and the local information office as the honest broker that fights our corner and wrests the odd concession.

The Pristina secretary of information, Bosko Drobnjak, is a man blessed with the ability of knowing what his interlocutors want to hear and then doing his best to give it to them. He told British and French journalists that Kosovo could become autonomous as long as the Albanians dropped their demands for independence. On Russian television he warned that any Albanian who chose to stay in the besieged villages would automatically be considered a terrorist by association.

The Serb authorities all play such games. One day the police might open up roads and allow photographers to take pictures of dead bodies, but at the same time they turn back food and medical supplies and prevent doctors treated the wounded. "They are playing games with human lives and international law," said Francois Fille of the Medecins sans Frontieres charity.

When the police completed their onslaught on Prekaz, the village at the centre of the recent offensive, we were invited on an official tour to reassure us that the Serbs had nothing to hide. Our guides insisted the holes in the roofs of the houses - almost certainly caused by mortars - were made by grenades that the "terrorists" left behind. We were driven to a bunker that was said to be the terrorist command base. It was tiny, and looked as if it could have been there for decades.

The Albanian community criticised journalists for taking the tour, but the trip ended up condemning the Serbs far more than it exonerated them.