Croats slaughter elderly by the dozen

As the territorial shuffle over ex-Yugoslavia continues, so does the misery of the population

CROATIA is unleashing a reign of terror against hundreds of elderly Serbs left behind in the formerly Serb Krajina region of the country, more than a month after its "liberation" of the territory. UN and human rights officials are reporting each day the murder or "disappearance" of at least 10 Serb civilians, some of them - in their eighties and nineties - burned alive in their own homes, while the torching of whole villages is being systematically carried out by Croatian troops.

One shocking UN report - which only became available this weekend - records the massacre of six elderly men and women in the village of Komic two weeks ago, three of them burned alive by armed Croats; a middle-aged man in the same village was shot and his body burned in his house. Yesterday I saw the brains of an 80-year-old woman lying in the driver's seat of her family's car in the village of Babici shortly after relief workers had taken away her body; she had been shot three days earlier - less than a week after UN officers had visited her home to give her food.

Although the American and British embassies in Zagreb have received detailed reports of the anarchy in Krajina, neither has offered a whisper of reproach to the Croatian authorities, who now are supposed to be partners in the new American-sponsored "peace" in ex-Yugoslavia. But officials of the UN War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague are to start investigations on Croatia this week into possible war crimes by Croatian commanders in the region. Three lawyers from France, the Netherlands and Belgium are expected to arrive in Knin on Friday.

Their inquiries will focus on, among other atrocities, the reported shooting of eight of the remaining 12 Serbs still living in the village of Gosic on 27 August and the burning to death of the group of elderly villagers in Komic on 12 August. A UN human rights team records the deaths there as follows: "Mara Ugarkovic (born 1921), female, burned in her house; Mika Pavlica (born 1904), female, being very old and unable to run away, was burned in her house; Sava Lovrinic (born 1903), female, burned in her house; Rade Mirkovic (year of birth unknown), male, he was found dead, shot in the head in front of his house; Mara Mirkovic, female, Rade's wife, lost, supposedly killed; Petar Lavrnic (born 1933), male, killed and then burnt in his house."

The UN believes that dozens of undiscovered bodies lie in the fields in the destroyed Serb villages, areas into which UN officers are not allowed to enter for fear of mines. Croatian troops, however, can frequently be seen moving through the fields on their notorious "cleaning" operations, allegedly hunting for Serb soldiers still at large but stealing farm animals, furniture and jewellery from the few elderly Serb peasants still alive.

One of them complained to the UN on Friday that Croatian troops had torn the bathtub and sink out of her home. Travelling through the village of Bakovice yesterday, one old lady, breaking into tears as she spoke, told us how Croatian troops had taken her pigs, tractor and television set. "Yesterday, they even made me carry my lawn mower from the shed before stealing it," she said. Like other elderly Serbs I met, she pleaded with UN officers to take her to Serbia.

UN and European Union monitors also are discovering evidence of war crimes committed by Croatian troops at the time of the Krajina offensive. At Golubic, UN officers have found the decomposing remains of five people, one of them a woman, all of them over 55 and the oldest 77. The head of one of the victims was found 150 ft from his body. Another UN team, meanwhile, is investigating the killing of a man and woman in the same area after villagers described how the man's ears and nose had been mutilated.

The Croatian authorities continue to claim that the murders are carried out by "uncontrolled elements", despite repeated evidence that their troops are systematically killing and looting their way through Serb villages. The Croatian commander in Knin, General Ivan Cermak, acknowledged for the first time yesterday that there was a "serious problem" with looters, but again put the blame on civilians taking revenge for having been driven out of Krajina in 1991.

Of course given the atrocities committed by their cousins in Bosnia - and with Nato's war against Bosnian Serb forces increasing in intensity - the world has little sympathy to waste on the Serbs of Krajina. As the Croatians are well aware.

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