Serbia jails ex-policemen for Kosovo massacre

A war crimes court today found four Serbian former policemen guilty of the massacre of 48 Kosovo Albanians and sentenced them to up to 20 years in prison.

The Serbian court's judges said the victims of the worst single massacre of civilians during the 1998-99 Kosovo war included 14 children, two infants, a pregnant woman and a 100-year-old woman.

After a three-year trial, two of the men were sentenced to a maximum of 20 years in jail, one to 15 years and another to 13 years. All the defendants had denied the charges. Three other men also charged with the killings were found not guilty.

In Serbia, the very fact that the trial was held marked a shift in public policy, as Serbs who fought separatist ethnic Albanians in Kosovo are still revered by many here as war heroes.

The Serb war crimes prosecutors, however, said they would appeal the verdicts, especially because the prime suspect — the commander of the special police unit that carried out the massacre — was acquitted Thursday.

"We cannot be satisfied with the verdict," said Bruno Vekaric, the spokesman for the prosecution. "Justice has not been carried out."

The verdict said the defendants rounded up members of one Kosovo Albanian family in their village of Suva Reka in March 1999, killing several men with machine-gun fire before forcing the rest into a pizza restaurant and throwing hand-grenades at them.

Those showing any signs of life were shot in the head and the bodies were transported to a mass grave in Kosovo, where they were initially dumped. One woman lived to tell the story as she played dead before jumping from a truck packed with corpses.

The victims were later reburied in mass graves near a high security police facility outside Belgrade, the Serbian capital, as former President Slobodan Milosevic apparently tried to hide atrocities committed by his troops in Kosovo. Autopsies showed the victims were executed.

Pressure from human rights groups prompted Belgrade to launch an investigation to determine who was to blame for the Suva Reka massacre. More than 100 witnesses, including Kosovo Albanians, were questioned during the trial.

War crimes trials became possible in Serbia after Milosevic was ousted in 2000. The ex-president died in 2006 while on trial for genocide at a UN war crimes court in The Hague, Netherlands.

Kosovo declared independence last year, something Serbia refuses to recognize.

Kosovo's government welcomed the verdict, but urged Serbia's authorities to pursue justice in other cases of crimes committed against ethnic Albanians during the Kosovo war.

"We welcome every court and justice decision that will shed light to the atrocities committed in Kosovo during the war," said Memli Krasniqi, spokesman for Kosovo's government. "Nevertheless, we feel that this should not cease with one case. We believe that justice need to be done in more than a dozen other cases that remain."

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