War in the Balkans: War Crimes: 15 mass gravesites found in Kosovo

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WAR CRIMES investigators in the Hague have been given evidence of at least 15 mass graves inside Kosovo.

Witnesses have told of large groups of ethnic Albanians being slaughtered and buried all over the province. Prosecutors from the tribunal, set up in the aftermath of the 1992-5 Bosnia war, plan to exhume bodies after Serb forces are out of the region.

"It's terrifying," Graham Blewitt, the deputy prosecutor of the International War Crimes Tribunal told The Independent yesterday. "We also heard stories of massacre and rape on a large scale."

Mr Blewitt refusing to divulge the locations, logging the information so far as "unconfirmed". But the number and similarity of accounts is chilling.

The medical aid organisation Medecins sans Frontiers says it has more than 50 testimonies relating to the existence of the graves from refugees who have crossed into northern Albania.

"We have assigned one of our aid workers full-time to take statements from witnesses who are talking time and time again of mass graves," said Christopher Stokes, MSF's emergency co-ordinator in Tirana.

"We have interviewed only a fraction of the people who want to talk to us because we always insist on a counsellor being present. The trauma involved in retelling their stories can be considerable."

Governments, aid agencies and prosecutors have learned much from mistakes made in Bosnia, when vital witnesses to events were lost in the confusion of the conflict. This time, the collection of evidence is running in tandem with the provision of aid.

"We are much better prepared this time," said Mr Blewitt. "When we started in Bosnia, we were the new kid on the block and we have to carve out a niche for ourselves. Now, we have established relationships and lines of communication to ensure we get the information we need to bring the perpetrators of war crimes to justice."

The help of agencies and governments is vital to the UN-funded tribunal. It has only 70 investigators, although its budget, at $100m is not inconsiderable.

Earlier this week two of its staff, Frank Dutton, investigations commander, and Tim Kelly, arrived in the Albanian capital Tirana to begin gathering evidence of atrocities. Both men are former detectives, Mr Dutton with the South African police, Mr Kelly with the police department of New South Wales in Australia.

Almost immediately, they were given more than 300 witness statements and 30 hours of video-taped evidence by the office of Albert Rakipi, Albania's chief prosecutor, detailing acts of rape, murder and violence.

On Wednesday, 29 regional prosecutors met in Tirana to discuss the collection of evidence from the 314,000 refugees dotted in camps, municipal buildings, warehouses and family homes all over the country.

"I have 80 people working full time on this," Mr Rakipi said. "So far we have interviewed people who claim evidence of massacres at Raak, Goden, Rahovic, Gjakov and Kamenice. We believe there are other places.

"There is also evidence relating to rape. We have statements from 13 women who say they were raped by Serbs. We want to gather as much evidence as soon as possible while we can still keep in contact with the victims and witnesses."

Yesterday, The Independent gave the Hague investigators details of Dr Silvia Miria, director of the Tirana Counselling Centre for Women and Girls, whose work gathering evidence on the rape of Kosovar women was featured on Tuesday.

They plan to meet her again. But Mr Dutton a former Nazi war crimes investigator in Australia, said the work of investigators would be pointless without the willingness of the international community to bring suspects to trial.

He said there was disappointment at the Hague that some of those indicted over the Bosnian atrocities - including the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, and the military commander Ratko Mladic - are still free.

"Perhaps if they had been tried and convicted it might have proved a deterrent to others," he said. "And we would not be in this position now."