`Bodies have been taken away'

UN investigators complain burial sites have been tampered with, writes Emma Daly in Zvornik
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The Independent Online
War crimes investigators began collecting evidence from a suspected mass grave yesterday but said they feared Bosnian Serbs might have moved many bodies buried at Sahanici One, an alleged execution site for hundreds of Muslim men from Srebrenica.

The six investigators, including a forensic specialist, John Gerns, began by video-taping and photographing the 1,500m squared site, then marked it with yellow tape: "Police line. Do not cross." But they seemed gloomy about the prospects: one was overheard to say it was obvious the site was tampered with recently, and that bodies could have been removed.

US troops serving with Nato's peace implementation force, I-For, accompanied the team but will not guard the site: "It's just not a mission I have," Colonel John Batiste said yesterday, adding he did not fear further interference by the Bosnian Serbs, despite the obvious damage done to the site in the past few weeks.

Large clumps of freshly turned earth, marked by the tracks of large vehicles, over half the site, contrast with new grass covering the back part. "I'm not optimistic," one investigator said, gesturing at the mounds of loam. "They may have done a pretty good job of cleaning up," said another.

Mr Gerns, dressed in blue overalls, heavy gum-boots and thick orange gloves, moved slowly up and down, prodding the earth with a 4ft probe

"He has the worst job," a colleague explained: to push the probe down, pull it back and smell it for traces of human flesh. Mr Gerns placed a line of sticks in the ground, to mark the area where he planned to dig a trench.

But even above ground, the grim signs were all too clear. Almost hidden under a clump of grass lay a spine with a few ribs attached; nearby, was a jawbone and a human femur. A few yards away, close to a pile of clothes, shoes and blindfolds cut from pink cloth, reporters found a medical card.

It once belonged to Mehmed Rizvo, who was born in 1939 and came from Suceska, a small town close to Srebrenica, and it had been signed and stamped by a doctor from the former enclave. The International Red Cross has registered the names of 8,000 people missing since the fall of Srebrenica in July. Officials have said they believe that almost half, at least 3,000, are dead.

Three other suspected mass graves beside the main road from Zvornik to the Bosnian Serb headquarters at Pale appear to be be completely undisturbed. Covered in new grass, they look like ordinary fields, save for fragments of clothing and a protruding bone. A third site, closer to Srebrenica, consists of two large, muddy areas. It is impossible to tell whether they have been tampered with. At Sahanici One, the investigators searched the area closely, bagging evidence - the label from a box of 7.62 ammunition, a tin containing 1260 rounds -- from the killing ground. Survivors say hundreds of people, perhaps 1,500, were taken to the school in the neighbouring village, blindfolded, loaded into open trucks in shifts, ferried to the site, and shot.

The victims were visited, the three survivors have said, by General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander who has been indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity over the Srebrenica massacres. As the men cowered in the gym of the school, packed tightly into a room big enough to house a basketball court, the Serb general stalked in and told them that they would be sent to a work camp. But then the trucks rolled in. The men next saw General Mladic at the execution and burial site.

The gym was deserted yesterday, though children had played outside the day before. Inside the hall, debris supporting the witnesses' stories was everywhere: spent rifle shells, odd shoes, spatters of what looked like blood, discarded blindfolds, even a swathe of the same pink material from which the blindfolds had been roughly cut. The scene stank. The investigators are expected to visit soon.

But locals who could hardly have avoided noticing the stream of trucks pulling out filled with men and returning empty, their journeys punctuated by the sound of gunfire only 2km up the road, are determined to deny they knew anything. The school, too, was tranquil last summer.

"No, nothing happened there," said Nada. "That's where the children play."

Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, told the Commons yesterday he was sure I-For and the Bosnian police would respond to any request to ensure suspected mass graves were not tampered with.

Pressed over attempts to cover up evidence of genocide, Mr Rifkind condemned any interference with sensitive sites and said the government was working with the International Criminal Tribunal. Raising the issue, highlighted in the Independent, Peter Hain, Labour MP for Neath, said it was "totally unacceptable that I-For should be failing to secure the suspected sites of mass graves".

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