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  • War Crimes Team Gathers Grisly Evidence

    By John Ward Anderson
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Wednesday, June 23, 1999; Page A16

    VELIKA KRUSA, Yugoslavia, June 22—In other times, a drive down the bumpy dirt lane here would have been a quintessential bucolic experience: red-roofed farmhouses nestled in green pastures where horses gambol, all framed by dramatic mountains that are still snow-capped in late June.

    Today, it is a quintessential Kosovo experience: The houses have been gutted by fire, the pastures may be mined, and at the end of the road behind police crime-scene tape, 15 men and women in white suits, yellow gloves and surgical masks comb through evidence of one of the most horrific massacres of the war in Kosovo.

    It was here, amid a cluster of farmhouses and barns, villagers say, that at least several dozen men and boys were murdered by Serbian police on March 26, two days after NATO began its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. The incident became one of the main counts in the war crimes indictment of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

    Securing and investigating the crime scene was a top priority for the Hague-based U.N. war crimes tribunal, which sent the first team of investigators here earlier this week to gather evidence. Workers at the scene -- now barred to reporters and photographers -- said they literally were walking around in body fluids and scooping bones up in their arms.

    "I've had bombings and a dozen deaths, but never anything like this," said John Bunn, deputy head of operations for Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist branch and leader of the all-British evidence team. "At this type of scene, you just keep your head down and go for it."

    Bunn said his team -- experts in autopsies, ballistics, arson, anthropology, bomb disposal and crime scene analysis -- will be in Kosovo for at least two months investigating this and other locations. They expect to finish work in Velika Krusa by Wednesday, after which officials at the war crimes tribunal will decide where the team will go, he said. "There are an enormous number of sites" to be investigated, Bunn said, perhaps several hundred, and other countries also will send experts to analyze them.

    "If there is a trial, there will be a rigorous cross-examination," and investigators will testify about what they found at the scenes, Bunn said. "You can't just say someone is guilty of war crimes without the evidence."

    Advance teams from The Hague have been in Kosovo since last week, staking out about 20 sites previously chosen for their evidentiary value in the case against Milosevic and four key members of his entourage. The five were indicted May 24 on charges of crimes against humanity and other violations of international conventions involving the displacement, torture and execution of more than 340 Kosovo Albanian civilians.

    A British Foreign Office official said last week that the number of ethnic Albanian civilians slain by Serb-led security forces in Kosovo in the last three months could well exceed 10,000, although the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Louise Arbour, has declined to comment on that figure or to speculate on a civilian death toll.

    The first investigators to arrive here are from Britain and the United States. They will be followed by teams from Canada and France, officials said, and the eventual number will reach 350 within a month, working in teams of 15 to 20 spread out across one of the largest crime scenes in history.

    Keeping crime scenes uncontaminated is proving increasingly difficult as hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees begin returning home to find bodies littering their houses and lands. Over the past week, residents of seemingly every village in Kosovo have taken NATO troops, human rights workers, war crimes investigators and journalists to purported massacre sites or mass graves in their communities. On the eight-mile drive northwest from the city of Prizren to Velika Krusa, the smell of death arose from roadside ditches in at least three places. It seems unlikely that all or even most of such sites can be investigated.

    According to the tribunal indictment, the incident that occurred here began March 25, when Serbian special police units attacked Velika Krusa and nearby Mali Krusa, whose names mean big and little Krusa. Villagers hid in a nearby forest and watched as the police looted and burned their houses, the indictment says.

    The next day, the police spotted the villagers, rounded them up and told the women and small children to leave Kosovo and go to neighboring Albania. The men and boys were searched, their identity documents were taken and they were led to a building on the southern edge of town.

    Once inside, the indictment charges, the police "opened fire on the group," adding: "After several minutes of gunfire, the police piled hay on the men and boys and set fire to it in order to burn the bodies."

    The indictment says 105 people were killed, although tribunal investigators say the human remains here would account for about half that number. They noted, however, that there are numerous other sites to be examined in the immediate area.

    Earlier this week, residents of Velika Krusa took a reporter and photographer to four other alleged killing sites in the village, including a storage shed where they said 15 people were gunned down and burned. The ground was littered with bones.

    Gezim Duraku, 25, a farmer who lives in a house near the main massacre probe site, said most of the victims had lived on the north side of the village. Residents in his small cluster of homes fled to a nearby river bank on March 25, when the police started firing grenades at the village, he said.

    About 3 p.m. the next day, Duraku said, he heard three long bursts of gunfire, after which he saw that one of the buildings near his house was on fire. He said he did not return to see what had happened but hid with about 50 other people near the river for five more days, after which they walked over the mountains to Albania.

    Correspondent Charles Trueheart in Paris contributed to this report.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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