Human traffickers held for 100 deaths

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The Independent Online
TWO SUSPECTED ring leaders of a Yugoslav human trafficking network were arrested on criminal charges relating to the deaths of more than 100 gypsies who drowned in the Adriatic as they tried to reach the Italian coast in a tiny fishing boat.

The traffickers are accused of packing the people on to a vessel designed for nine people. They had charged the refugees between 1,000 and 2,500 German marks (pounds 350 to pounds 870) each for the trip from Montenegro, the smaller of the two republics still in Yugoslavia, to Italy.

The body of a small boy was pulled from the sea off the Yugoslav coast yesterday, the latest of the past week's grim discovery of more than 40 corpses, some of them partly disintegrated. A further 60 passengers on the same vessel are believed to have died. So far only one survivor has been found.

Police said the two men, Joko Nikaljevic from Kotor and Ramadan Balja from the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica, were detained on Thursday. Six others from Montenegro and Serbia were still at large.

About 7,000 gypsies have arrived on the shores of southern Italy in recent weeks, bringing tales of murder, rape, torture and looting by Albanians who accuse them of collaborating with the Serbs in the Balkan war. But many of them now face deportation back to Kosovo after the Italian government not to consider them refugees.

Unlike the Kosovo Albanians, the gypsies are viewed as illegal immigrants, to be turned back at the borders or sent home. The Italian government has defended the about face, saying the war is now over and the special status of "humanitarian refugees", which allowed fleeing Kosovars to remain in Italy until December, has been revoked. The timing of the measure, just as the first wave of gypsies arrived, has provoked a barrage of criticism of double standards and racism.

At a reception camp on a disused runway near Bari airport, 702 gypsies, including 269 children under the age of five, have taken the places of Kosovo Albanians who have now returned home. They occupy the same neat rows of white caravans interspersed with brightly coloured children's play huts and pristine portable toilets.

In the afternoon heat, families sit outside their caravans on deck chairs reminiscing about the past and discussing the future. Ali Ademi, 65, touches his still tender ribcage as he recalls the day he decided to flee: "The KLA came to our house and ordered us to hand over any arms the Serbs had given us. When we told them we had none, they turned their machine-gun on my brother-in-law, who was confined to a wheelchair, and killed him. They then tied my hands with a rope and dragged me behind a car for a mile to force me to talk. It was pointless. I had no weapons to give them."

An elderly woman with grey hair, black eyes and wrinkled cheeks recounts how her neighbour, a childhood friend, was raped in front of her eyes.

Nehrup Gashi, 28, from Pristina, adds: "If they try to send us back, I swear half the people would jump overboard.We want to pick up what pieces are left but not to become sitting ducks for the KLA. The K-For troops just stand aside and do nothing. We went to a British barracks asking for help but they didn't want to know."

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