Biggest grave site holds 350 victims

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The Independent Online
ITALIAN PEACE-KEEPERS in western Kosovo say they have found the largest mass grave in the province to be discovered so far, containing up to 350 bodies of Albanians who were murdered at the start of Nato's bombing campaign.

Major Jan Joosten, a spokesman for the international K-For peace-keeping force, warned that the figure of 350 had not been confirmed by war-crimes investigators and was based largely on local reports.

Survivors from Ljubenic, near Pec, said the massacre occurred in the village on 1 April, a week after the Western alliance started bombing Yugoslavia. Villagers said about 80 of their men were executed in the village itself by Serbian irregulars, while many more were picked off on a nearby mountain where other villagers had fled, seeking refuge.

"Serb police surrounded our village, divided the women and children from the men and told them to go to Albania," one man said. "After that they executed two men from the village in front of us and after a while they started to shoot us, using all different kinds of weapons. Only nine of us survived."

He said every day villagers were bringing bodies down from the mountain behind the village, where most of the killings took place.

Emrush Alickaj, 42, said he had collected 14 bodies in the hills on Thursday with the help of Italian soldiers. "The worst thing is when we find the bodies of children," he said.

The lucky survivors were those who fled first, ahead of the Serbs, and made it to Albania or Montenegro, which is part of Yugoslavia but opposed Serb "ethnic cleansing".

Sali Huskaj, 58, a teacher in Ljubenic, said Serbian forces arrived on 1 April and gave residents five minutes to leave. After the round-up of the 80 men, he said, villagers decided they could survive only by fleeing uphill and they had to move ever higher into the mountains as Serbs chased them. "The wanted to erase witnesses - every trace," he said.

Major Joosten said K-For was sealing off the site and would clear it of mines to enable war-crimes investigators from the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, based in The Hague, to start work.

An Italian lieutenant-colonel at the scene, who declined to give his name, told Reuters news agency yesterday that his soldiers had found the remains of about 50 people in Ljubenic and five in a village up the hill. "We have certain information but it is not precise." he said. "There may perhaps be as many as the villagers say but we are still doing research."

Until now, the largest mass grave found in Kosovo has been found at Celine, near Prizren, south-west Kosovo, where German peace-keepers last week discovered 120 bodies. Another 20 bodies were found in a separate, nearby grave.

The other big mass graves found so far have been at the adjacent villages of Velika Krusa and Bela Crkva, also near Prizren, where German K-For troops have found at least 100 bodies. Villagers in Bela Crkva buried 60 of them this week.

Most of the graves appear to be in Kosovo's south-west, which bore the brunt of a ferocious Serbian "ethnic cleansing" aimed at driving the civilian population from this strategically important zone close to the border with Albania. However, peace-keepers have found at least one large grave in northern Kosovo at Koliq, containing about 60 bodies. And British K- For troops found a large grave at Kacanik, in southern Kosovo, containing at least 85 bodies.

Most of the victims were Albanians shot dead by Serbian security forces and paramilitaries shortly after Nato began bombing raids against Yugoslavia on 24 March.

The Bela Crkva site is one of six mass grave areas listed by the International War Crimes Tribunal in its indictment of the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, and four of his top associates for crimes against humanity.