Serb mass grave reveals secret of executed Americans

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The Independent Online

Three Americans of ethnic-Albanian origin were executed and their bodies were thrown into a mass grave in Serbia, a Serbian police chief said yesterday, as authorities stepped up an investigation into a possible cover-up of war crimes by Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president.

Dusan Mihajlovic, the Serbian Interior Minister, who is under pressure from United States authorities to conduct a thorough investigation, gave new details on the case of the three ethnic Albanians holding US nationality whose bodies have been found in a mass grave in eastern Serbia. Their execution in July 1999, he said, was "an extremely serious crime ... they were neither tried nor sentenced to death.

"Their bodies were found with hands tied behind their backs ... They were blindfolded," Mr Mihajlovic said. All three were shot in the head.

The three brothers, Mehmet, Agron and Illy Bityqi, were born and raised in Chicago. The mass grave at a Serbian police training compound in Petrovo Selo where they were found contained 74 bodies, all transported from Kosovo in 1999.

An investigation is attempting to establish whether the brothers were part of the so-called "Atlantic Brigade", in which ethnic Albanians from overseas fought alongside the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). The three apparently entered Kosovo from Albania in an effort to join the KLA.

Police found a southern Serbian court document in the pockets of one of them. It was dated 27 June 1999 and called for a 15-day detention of the trio for "illegal entry into Serbia".

The brothers apparently tried to leave Kosovo via Serbia after Nato air raids ended in June 1999. They were detained by Serbian police in the border town of Kursumlija on 26 June. A day later they were sentenced to 15 days in prison and expulsion from Serbia. But, when a court clerk went to notify them of the expulsion in the district prison of the southern Serbian town of Prokuplje on 8 July, the brothers were already gone, Mr Mihajlovic said. "It remains for us to see how the persons who should have been expelled ended up in Petrovo Selo, and who did that," he added.

According to the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre, the three disappeared after being released from Prokuplje prison on 8 July 1999. Their release was arranged by a police inspector from the foreign nationals' division, who questioned them on their arrest the previous month.

The inspector told the prison warden that he would "take care of the Bityqis" and the warden signed a provisional release order. The three brothers left Prokuplje prison at about noon on 8 July, and were handed over to two plainclothes officers. That was the last time they were seen until their bodies were dug up earlier this month.

Many ethnic Albanians are known to have paid Serb policemen to take them to safety in and around Kosovo in 1998 and 1999, only to be killed afterwards.

The minister also said an investigation was under way into a second freezer truck containing the bodies of dozens of ethnic Albanians dumped beside a hydroelectric plant at Perucac, on the Drina river, during the Nato air raids.

He confirmed a report from a senior police official, Dragan Karleusa, who said that a truck with about 55 bodies surfaced in Perucac lake in April 1999. The bodies were later buried in a nearby mass grave.

The first gruesome case of a freezer truck containing 80 bodies of ethnic Albanians dumped into the river Danube near Kladovo, 250km east of Belgrade, was revealed by police only in May. That truck went into the Danube in April 1999. The bodies were later buried at a police training compound, just north of Belgrade.

The excavation of the mass grave in Batajnica started last month and showed that all the victims came from Kosovo. Kladovo and Perucac are hundreds of kilometres apart and hundreds of kilometres from Kosovo.