At the end of the first row of bodies arranged neatly in a shed at the edge of this town was the corpse of a sandy-haired boy, perhaps 12 or 13 years old, with a gaping bullet wound in his forearm and other wounds hidden by a sheet. Behind him was the crumpled and bloodied body of another boy, perhaps 5 years old, wearing a blue jacket, red shirt and torn jeans.
The corpses of nine other children and 11 women were among the 46 bodies delivered on a truck this morning by Serbian police to a depot for construction materials and laid beneath sheets next to a stack of lumber. As a light rain fell, a group of 25 or so ethnic Albanians from the surrounding area stepped gingerly in the mud and between the corpses to tug at the sheets and try to identify the bodies.
According to the villagers, these women and children died along with at least 21 men -- six of them elderly -- during a three-day assault by government forces on ethnic Albanian residents in the nearby village of Donji Prekaz. On Sunday, Serbian police and civilian officials had insisted to a group of journalists that the attack killed only 26 terrorists and a single child, but the evidence today was indisputable that the death toll was much higher.
A policeman standing at the edge of the site confirmed as much when he delivered a brief speech before allowing several journalists to view the bodies for the first time. He said he wanted the visitors to know that the attack had killed some "genuine terrorists" who had been shooting at police. But he also said he was personally sorry that women and children were among the dead -- people he acknowledged were not terrorists but merely "caught in the cross-fire."
The decision in London today by the United States, Russia and four West European countries to open a probe of possible war crimes in Donji Prekaz and several neighboring towns will undoubtedly shine a spotlight on the events that led to the deaths of so many ethnic Albanians.
Kosovo, with a population that is 90 percent ethnic Albanian, lost its autonomous status in 1989 and is now a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.
Donji Prekaz is now empty and silent, but refugees from the area have described a brutal assault by a force of perhaps 1,000 or more police and special forces armed with large-caliber machine guns, helicopters, tanks and mortars or rockets. Human rights groups said today that they had found a total of nine houses that were destroyed and had heard reports that suggest the final death toll may be well over 60. The fighting sowed enormous panic among ethnic Albanians in the Drenica Valley west of Pristina, Kosovo's capital, and provoked an estimated 13,000 people to flee their homes, said Isuf Dedushaj, the head of the Albanian Red Cross in Kosovo. He said 3,500 of these residents had gone to the nearby Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, which has a large population of ethnic Albanians, while most of the others had taken refuge with friends. Some of the refugees have tried to live in nearby woods, and many are already receiving U.S.-funded humanitarian aid. Large demonstrations to protest the killings were organized by ethnic Albanian leaders in 15 cities and towns throughout Kosovo today. During a march through downtown Pristina by a crowd estimated at 60,000 to 100,000 people, the protesters chanted "Drenica" and carried signs saying "Stop The Ethnic Cleansing," "Stop The Serbian Terror" and "S.O.S. U.N." Several participants said in interviews that the slayings had transformed widespread frustration among the majority ethnic Albanian population here into outright anger about ethnic discrimination, and vowed that they would no longer allow the Serbian government to suppress their demands for Albanian-language schools and better jobs. "Right now, we can't study, and we have lost our hope for the future," said a 16-year-old protester, who gave his name as Adem. A 50-year-old businessman named Hajrush said, "There is going to be much more escalation . . . if they don't stop what the Serbians are doing. People are not going to stand for this anymore." Although the police assaults in Donji Prekaz had ended by Sunday, a loud explosion was heard from the direction of the town today. The surrounding region remains officially sealed off, and reporters were able to reach the site of the bodies only by circumventing one police roadblock and talking their way past another. Some Serbian police have said they are not embarrassed by the action, because they finally killed a man they have been after for a long time -- Adem Jashari.
Jashari, whose body was shown to reporters at the depot today, was accused by the government several years ago of masterminding various shootings of local Serbian police and authorities. He also was said to be a leader of an organization known as the Kosovo Liberation Army, which has advocated violent resistance to Serbia's control of Kosovo. Villagers said 10 of the dead at the depot had belonged to Jashari's immediate family.
Serbian officials have depicted the slayings as a triumph for state security, but many foreigners are likely to view them as shocking reminders of the brutal and excessive use of military force that became commonplace in the 1992-1995 war in neighboring Bosnia.
An official with a human rights group in Srbica, Emin Dajaku, who also saw the corpses for the first time today, said none would be buried until they are seen by "international experts" and by reliable doctors. These witnesses might provide some of the forensic and other evidence needed for eventual war crimes trials. A local Albanian newspaper published pictures of the bodies on its Internet site tonight.
A total of 29 bodies had been identified by midafternoon; three were so badly burned they could not be identified immediately. Many had gruesome wounds from shrapnel or bullets, including a slender girl in her early teens whose head was partially missing and an adult woman whose skull was split. One middle-aged man had multiple bullet holes in his chest.
Several elderly Albanian men wearing white conical hats paced silently in front of the two rows of corpses, and a small boy stood by while his father lifted one of the sheets to get a closer look. A Serbian policeman standing 20 yards away talked about the growing friction between Serbians and ethnic Albanians. "These are hard times," he said. "Instead of being afraid of me, I am afraid of them. I am afraid to go out." Special correspondent Colin Soloway in Srbica contributed to this report. CAPTION: Thousands of ethnic Albanians take to the streets of Pristina, Kosovo, to protest the killing of fellow Albanians by Serbian forces.