Serbs move to defuse peace monitor row

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The Independent Online
THE SERBS moved to defuse the political tension over Kosovo last night by agreeing to "freeze" the expulsion order in force against the region's main international monitor.

The decision by the Yugoslav government, issued late last night, concerning William Walker, head of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitors, appeared to be a tactical withdrawl in the face of today's Nato contact meeting and growing threats by the West.

It by no means resolves the crisis and the Serbs said the expulsion could be re-activated once they have finished "reviewing" Mr Walker's status.

Prime Minister Tony Blair discussed the issue with President Bill Clinton and the leaders indicated "growing concern" at recent events, hinting at further measures.

Mr Walker was ordered to leave the country after accusing the Serbs of the massacre of 45 civilians in the village of Racak last Friday.

Fall-out from the massacre issue dominated yesterday's Downing Street cabinet meeting and diplomats from the Contact Group of nations - the UK, US, France, Italy, Germany and Russia - are due in London today for more talks.

The struggle over the bodies of 45 Kosovo Albanians, lying in a mortuary in Pristina, has gone this way and that in the past few days, creating multiple distractions for the international community and taking attention away from the central question: who is responsible for their deaths?

Last Saturday, hours after the bodies were found strewn over a hilltop near the village, Mr Walker was in no doubt about the blame. He said it was a massacre, and Serbian security forces were responsible. Yesterday he repeated that there was nothing new to shake this conviction.

The days since the killings have not brought anyone closer to the truth. Instead, it has receded in a welter of accusations, dubious claims and diplomatic wrangling over Mr Walker himself, who was declared persona non grata by the Yugoslav government for his pains. The OSCE has refused to withdraw him and yesterday Knut Vollebak, the Norwegian Foreign Minister and chairman of the organisation, met President Milosevic in Belgrade in an effort to have the expulsion rescinded.

Belgrade is unlikely to throw out Mr Walker by force: that might provoke Nato into making air strikes. But the Serbs have seen off Louise Arbour, the international war-crimes prosecutor, who has returned to The Hague after being refused permission to enter Kosovo, and the tussle over Mr Walker is another welcome diversion for Mr Milosevic as he seeks ways to dissipate international indignation over Racak.

The only investigators allowed access to the bodies are Finnish pathologists, who yesterday began X-raying the corpses in an attempt to determine whether they were tampered with by the Kosovo Liberation Army, as Serbian sources claim, to make them appear victims of an atrocity.

This theory has gained currency after reports in the French press said a videotape of the fighting around Racak showed no sign of a massacre. The Serb side has claimed the KLA stripped uniforms from some of the dead and put them in civilian clothing and that bodies were brought from elsewhere. But journalists - including The Independent's - who reached the scene insist the victims showed every sign of having been killed at close range: bullet holes in their bodies matched those in their clothing, and in any case, several had been bludgeoned to death rather than shot.

These witnesses add that the crew which shot the videotape was some distance away and did not reach the village. The same applies to the French journalists whose reports have cast doubt on the atrocity theory - reports that have been seized on by the Serb side.

The KLA has admitted nine of its fighters were killed in fighting around Racak and that their bodies were removed for burial. It is possible that some of the civilian bodies were moved at the same time, but those who were at the scene insist this does not detract materially from the overwhelming evidence.

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