Serbs say five deaths were a road accident. With 300 bullet holes?

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The Independent Online
THE SERBIAN government voiced defiance yesterday over the killing of a family of ethnic Albanians, one minister claiming they died "in a road accident". The five bodies, including two children, were discovered on Monday in a tractor in the village of Rakovina. The tractor was riddled with bullets.

Jorgen Grunnet, spokesman for the monitors sent to Kosovo by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said about 300 shots from a machine- gun had been fired at the vehicle. But Professor Miodrag Kovac, the Serb minister for labour, health and social welfare, repeated: "It was a road accident."

The minister was in Pristina hospital, where the bodies of 40 of the 45 Albanians killed at Racak 12 days ago are being examined. Local journalists objected, saying the family had clearly been shot.

Later yesterday, the Serbian-run information office in Kosovo provided another theory, saying the family was killed by fellow Albanians. The shooting was an "unscrupulous reprisal by Albanian terrorist gangs ... against those who would not obey them and serve crime and separatism," the office said.

Prof Kovac announced that 36 autopsies of the victims of Racak had been completed, and in every case they had been killed by gunfire. He said this supported Serbia's claim that they were caught in fighting rather than massacred. "It was not a massacre - that's what I can say today," he said.

However, the head of a team of Finnish pathologists, who have been brought in under international pressure to examine the Racak victims, said that the bodies may have been tampered with, to make it appear they were killed in crossfire rather than in a massacre.

"There is a possibility of contamination and, of course, we have to bear in mind there is also a possibility of fabrication of evidence. This will be discussed with Yugoslav authorities," Helena Ranta said.

As the killing goes on - the body of a 49-year-old ethnic Albanian was found on Monday night in his bullet-riddled car in western Kosovo - the major powers announced they intend to frogmarch the Yugoslav government and ethnic Albanians to the negotiating table early next month, in a last attempt to impose a peaceful settlement in Kosovo.

At the same time both the US and Britain are starting to edge towards acceptance that the deployment of Nato ground troops, including a big American contingent, in the powder-keg province may be essential if any settlement is to stick.

After two days of hectic diplomacy across Europe, spurred by the latest killings, a twin-track Western strategy is in place. It combines intense diplomatic pressure on both parties to reach a deal, with a last warning from Nato to President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia that the alliance will use force if necessary to compel Belgrade to pull back its forces.

The negotiations would be a miniature version of the 1995 Dayton conference, which ended the war in Bosnia. With the US envoy Christopher Hill and the European Union's Wolfgang Petritsch as mediators, Serbs and Albanians would be brought together for non-stop talks, and kept there until a deal emerged, either voluntary or imposed by the allies.

The "invitations" are likely to be issued by foreign ministers of the six-nation Contact Group after a meeting in Paris or London at the end of the week.

Washington has not yet formally consented, but the delay is seen as a tactical ploy by the US to sidestep a Russian refusal to countenance force, and secure the sternest possible warning from Nato today.

Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State, for the first time did not rule out the despatch of American ground troops to Kosovo. The allies were considering "a wide range of options" was as far as she would go after talks in Moscow with Russia's Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov.

"That's not what we usually say, she moved the ball a little bit," a US official said afterwards.

In London, the Foreign Office minister Tony Lloyd acknowledged that British ground troops might have to be sent to Kosovo if a political settlement was not forthcoming.

Analysts say 100,000 or more troops could be needed to impose peace, more than three times the 30,000-strong Nato force in Bosnia.