March 11, 1998 in Nation/World

Serbs Forcibly Bury Victims To Stop Funeral In Kosovo Police Action Prevents Autopsies, Sure To Inflame Tensions Further

Chris Hedges New York Times

The Serbian police seized the bodies of 51 ethnic Albanians killed in a sweep of separatists in Kosovo province, loaded them onto trucks, dumped them into graves and bulldozed the earth, witnesses said.

The forced burials Tuesday denied families a chance to have autopsies performed and to hold funerals, something the Serbs have sought to avoid in a province now seething with frustration and anger.

“About 300 police arrived at the garage where the bodies were being held tonight and loaded them on a truck,” said one witness in Srbica, 25 miles west of Pristina. “There were 12 Albanians and a Muslim cleric allowed to go with the police to Prekaz. The bodies were put in the graves. The graves, dug this afternoon, were filled in by a bulldozer.”

The forced burials were carried out shortly after the United States envoy to the Balkans, Robert S. Gelbard, visited Pristina on Tuesday.

The latest victims, nearly all killed in the village of Prekaz in an attack that began last Thursday, were turned over to local community leaders by the police in Srbica late Sunday night. The Serbian police had warned the survivors that if the bodies, laid out on the cement floor of an old garage, were not buried Tuesday they would do the job themselves.

That decision is bound to inflame tensions here. Foreign diplomats and local people have expressed fears that the violence could explode into another Balkan war.

The police, armed with automatic assault rifles and equipped with bulletproof vests, stood here Tuesday afternoon outside the garage that had served as a makeshift morgue. An armored personnel carrier was parked in the muddy yard with the nozzle of its heavy machine gun pointed at the subdued crowd of mourners.

The police hurried stunned relatives past the rows of bodies, all covered below the waist with white sheets.

“The Serbs demand we walk back into villages where they have been trying to kill us for the past few days,” said a young man in the town of Kosovska Mitrovica. His 65-year-old father was among the dead. “How do we know we will not be arrested by the police when we get to the bodies?”

The area’s ethnic Albanian leadership refused to bury the latest victims until international forensic teams were permitted to carry out autopsies. Families also said they were too frightened to travel in an area still ringed by Serbian police and security troops.

Western diplomats have demanded permission for international forensic experts to view the bodies of those killed. The diplomats are also seeking the opening of unconditional dialogue with the ethnic Albanian leadership. On Tuesday, sanctions were imposed on Serbia by the United States and other members of the contact group that monitors the former Yugoslavia.

The response from Belgrade was not encouraging.

Serbia’s minister of information, Radmila Milentijevic, echoing comments in the state-run press, dismissed the threats of sanctions and charged that Western governments had not done enough to condemn “terrorism.” She added that Belgrade would only open talks when the ethnic Albanians renounced their calls for independence.

Gelbard, who met with the Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, to discuss Kosovo, said that Belgrade had “trampled on the rule of law” and was responsible for the murder of women and children - 25 of whom were reported to be among the dead - through a disproportionate use of force against guerrilla strongholds.

“The only response this government seems to know is violence and repression,” Gelbard said in Pristina, following talks with ethnic Albanian leaders.

“We are at a very delicate stage,” Gelbard said. He said he warned Milosevic that “time is not on his side.”

A veteran activist and ethnic Albanian leader, Adem Demaci, dismissed the Western measures Tuesday as too weak to rattle Milosevic. “Milosevic has declared war on Albanians,” he said. “Milosevic started the war. Milosevic started killing women and children. Albanian resistance will not cease.”

The decision by the police to bury their own victims is seen as another way of defusing Albanian resistance by preventing another emotional funeral in Kosovo.

In the town of Likosane last week, 24 ethnic Albanians, many of them badly mutilated, were buried in front of 10,000 mourners, many of whom walked for hours to reach the site.

Although the most recent known victims were buried Tuesday, hundreds of police and black-uniformed paramilitary units continue their sweep to crush the nascent rebel force. Since the violence began on Feb. 28, thousands of ethnic Albanians have fled the area, at least 80 people have died and scores remain missing. Bodies are being discovered each day in the ruins of burned out houses and buildings in the area under siege.

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