Escaping war crimes suspects reach Serbia

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The Independent Online

Several of the prisoners who escaped from a detention center in northern Kosovo after overpowering their guards have reportedly reached Serbia, a local Serb leader said today.

Several of the prisoners who escaped from a detention center in northern Kosovo after overpowering their guards have reportedly reached Serbia, a local Serb leader said today.

"The Serb council here received information that four of the escaped prisoners phoned their families from inside Serbia," Oliver Ivanovic said in an interview carried by the independent Serb radio station B2-92.

Thirteen Serb prisoners accused of genocide, mass murder and war crimes went on the run after escaping from a United Nations detention centre in Kosovo.

The escapers overpowered their UN guards in the northern town of Mitrovica, robbed them of about £2,000 and fled over a barbed-wire fence. Fifteen men were involved in the breakout on Saturday, but two were quickly recaptured.

Nato peace-keepers launched a widescale search operation, involving roadblocks, searches of apartments and local countryside by tracker dogs, as well as alerting border points on Kosovo's frontier with Serbia.

The jailbreak brings to 22 the number of people who have escaped from UN detention centres in the past seven months. A UN spokeswoman said: "It's more than embarrassing, it's very disturbing and shocking not only because these people are at large, but what's disastrous is the signal that it sends to the majority of Kosovars who are waiting for us to administer justice in cases of war crimes."

Kosovo's civil administrator, Bernard Kouchner, expressed his anger at the escape and launched an inquiry.

The prisoners had been in detention since being arrested by Nato troops shortly after they entered Kosovo last June. They have not been indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, and their cases were being processed by the justice system in Kosovo, which is extremely slow-moving, in part because of the bias of local Albanian judges against the Serb minority. In many cases, international judges have been called upon to replace local Albanians.

Escapes of prisoners from UN detention facilities in Kosovo are not uncommon. Last month three Serbs escaped from a hospital in Mitrovica, despite the fact that UN policemen were posted outside their room. And a 15-year-old Albanian boy suspected of having shot and killed a Russian Nato peace-keeper has escaped from UN custody no fewer than five times this year.

The escape comes at a particularly difficult time for Mr Kouchner. Belgrade said last week that polling booths would be set up enabling Kosovo's 105,000 Serbs to vote in the Yugoslav elections later this month. If Mr Kouchner blocks them from voting, he would be seen as preventing Kosovo's Serbs from taking part in the democratic process of their own country, as the province remains part of Yugoslavia.

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