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Serb war criminals seize north Kosovo

FORMER SERBIAN police and paramilitaries, several of whom are under investigation for war crimes, have taken control of a slice of northern Kosovo and are using it as a base for illegal arms dealing, drug running and gang warfare, according to Nato military intelligence officials.

While tens of thousands of Serbs have fled the rest of Kosovo in fear of their lives, elements of the former administration have clung on in the northernmost tip of the province, part of the French sector. They have divided the town of Mitrovica into Serbian and Albanian zones, and have blockaded the only road leading north out of Mitrovica towards Serbia, in effect sealing off a mineral-rich northern enclave in Kosovo.

In the absence of a political decision to use force against the Serbs, French Nato troops have had little choice but to accept the fait accompli, leading to violent confrontations in the past week as Albanian demonstrators tried to gain access across the bridge spanning the river Ibar, which divides the northern, Serbian, half of Mitrovica from the Albanian section in the south.

To the fury of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which has taken a grip on the rest of Kosovo, French military officials readily admit that former senior Serbian policemen and paramilitaries are present in their sector. "There are about 100 paramilitaries living in Mitrovica," said Lieutenant Genseric Cantournet, a public affairs officer for French Nato troops in the town. "They belong to Arkan's group and to the `Tigers', a sub-group of his." Arkan, the nom de guerre of Zeljko Raznatovic, has been indicted by the UN tribunal for suspected war crimes in Bosnia in the early 1990s. He has also been accused by witnesses of committing atrocities in Kosovo.

Lt Cantournet said several senior Serbian police officers, suspected by the UN war crimes tribunal of having directed and participated in a massacre of Albanian civilians, were also living near Mitrovica. KLA sources named two of them as Vucina Janicijavic, the former Serb chief of police for the region, and Ljubisa Simic, deputy chief of police in the nearby town of Vucitrn, where 120 Albanian civilians were massacred in May. According to the KLA and several witnesses, both men orchestrated the killings.

"We consider these two men as suspects in the Vucitrn massacre and we believe they are operating out of Mitrovica," said Lt Cantournet. "We've got a lot of eyewitness accounts, but that's not necessarily the same as proof. That's our problem."

Romeu Ventura, an investigator for the UN war crimes tribunal, confirmed that 120 civilians were murdered on 2 May by Serb forces and buried two days later in a mass grave five miles east of Vucitrn. He said the victims came from a column of about 1,000 refugees, travelling in a convoy of about 100 tractors, who were fleeing fighting between the KLA and Serb forces east of Vucitrn, in a KLA-held area which the Serbs never previously conquered.

"The killing started some time between 8pm and 9pm, as soon as it got dark," said Mr Ventura, a Portuguese police investigator seconded to the tribunal. "Most of the victims were men. They were shot at point-blank range."

On a hill overlooking the mass grave site, recently excavated by UN forensic experts, Mr Ventura said many survivors of the massacre provided detailed eyewitness accounts of the slaughter. "They recognised many of the killers because these people have been living together for years. This was a case of neighbour turning on neighbour," he said. "We have the names of soldiers and chiefs of police because by chance many of the survivors knew them."

Sitting on the veranda at the back of her brick house, about four miles from the massacre site, Fatime Rashica, whose husband was murdered on 2 May, said she and dozens of other survivors told UN investigators that they recognised Vucina Janicijavic at the scene of the massacre. "He was the organiser," she said. "He walked up and down the column shouting orders at his men. At one point, he shouted into his walkie-talkie, `How many have you killed so far?' When the answer came back, `About fifty,' he shouted, `Keep on killing them'."

"We've asked the French for permission to go across and arrest these war criminals, but they won't let us," said Jakup Keseli, a KLA-appointed police officer now based in the former Serb police headquarters on the Albanian side of Mitrovica. "They told us they would take care of this, but I don't believe them because they have only arrested one criminal so far."

In July French gendarmes arrested Dragan Ianovic for illegal possession of firearms and grenades in his home in the Serb-held part of Mitrovica. "We've received reports that he is a paramilitary, but we don't know what group he belongs to," said Lt Cantournet. "We're investigating his role at a massacre near Vucitrn in May."

The KLA has publicly accused the French of being pro-Serb. "We don't trust them," said Mr Keseli, "because they only push back Albanians during incidents at the bridge. If the French keep behaving this way, Albanian civilians will take matters into their own hands."

"We don't necessarily move at the same pace as the KLA would like in our investigations," Lt Cantournet retorted. "We need proof that will stand up in court and to successfully obtain that takes time." He conceded, however, that French investigators were thinly stretched, saying: "We are also trying to establish law and order in this town. We're not only investigating war criminals, but drug dealing, prostitution and thefts. The corridor between Mitrovica and Pristina has always been the clearing house for drug importation into Western Europe."

While UN and French investigators continue their work, Sir Martin Garrod, the UN-appointed district administrator for Mitrovica, has been overseeing negotiations between Albanians and Serbs to allow freedom of movement for all parties throughout the province, including the northern region of Kosovo. But even though an agreement was reached last month, it has had little practical effect, leaving the north in Serb hands.

Questioned last week about the situation in Mitrovica, where war crimes suspects are roaming freely under French troops' noses, the French defence minister, Alain Richard, was dismissive. "I believe there will be more clashes as local guerrilla chiefs seek more power," he said.