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October 31 1999



Cook accused of misleading public on Kosovo massacres

by Nicholas Rufford

ROBIN COOK, the foreign secretary, is under pressure to answer claims that ministers misled the public over the scale of deaths among civilians in Kosovo to justify the Nato bombing of Belgrade.

The all-party Balkans committee of MPs will ask the Foreign Office this week to comment on reports that the number of bodies of victims of Serbian ethnic cleansing is lower than the figures of dead issued during the conflict.

At the height of the war, western officials spoke of a death toll as high as 100,000. President Bill Clinton said the Nato campaign had prevented "deliberate, systematic efforts at ethnic cleansing and genocide". Geoff Hoon, then a Foreign Office minister and now the defence secretary, later scaled down the estimates. "It appears that about 10,000 people have been killed in more than 100 massacres," he said.

The most outspoken challenge to these figures has come from Emilio Perez Pujol, a pathologist who led the Spanish team looking for bodies in the aftermath of the fighting. He said: "I calculate that the final figure of dead in Kosovo will be 2,500 at the most. This includes lots of strange deaths that can't be blamed on anyone in particular."

Perez Pujol said the numbers of dead were far lower than the 44,000 he had been warned of, and few were in mass graves. He said his team had arrived in Kosovo expecting to perform 2,000 post-mortem examinations and to work to the end of November. "On September 12 I called my people together and said: 'We have finished here.' I informed my government and told them of the real situation. We had found a total of 187 bodies. Four or five had died from natural causes."

United Nations officials have begun taking stock of the death toll this weekend after the exhumation of corpses stopped for the winter. The UN is expected to report next month that the total number of victims so far uncovered is fewer than 2,000. Many were executed, but some died during fighting and others died in allied bombing.

There is still no clear picture, however. Some of the forensic teams sent by 15 different countries say they have discovered fewer bodies than they anticipated. Others say there is more work to do and believe the death toll will rise.

The US State Department said this weekend that about 1,400 bodies have been recovered from about 20% of suspected massacre sites. There are about 500 suspected sites and priority has been given to those that were believed to contain the most bodies. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia reported earlier this month that the notorious Trepca mines in Kosovo, where 700 ethnic Albanian bodies were reportedly hidden, contained none.

The largest number of bodies has been recovered by British teams of police officers, pathologists and forensic scientists in the area where the worst mass killings reportedly occurred. They found 505 bodies, some in mass graves and many of them women and children.

Detective Chief Superintendent John Bunn, who led the British investigation group, said his teams had completed work at most of the sites around Prizren and Velakrusa, where some of the worst atrocities were said to have occurred. He said he had found graves containing as many as 77 bodies together of people executed at close range.

Alice Mahon, the Labour MP who chairs the Balkans committee, said yesterday that the deaths were tragic but did not justify the military action taken by Nato. "When you consider that 1,500 civilians or more were killed during Nato bombing, you have to ask whether the intervention was justified," she said.


October 31 1999


[Extracts from] "Lost in the Kosovo numbers game"

by Jon Swain

IN A grim and icy-cold corner of northern Kosovo is the site of what was suspected to be the country's largest mass grave. To date, however, four months later, the International War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague has had to admit that its investigation of the site has turned up no evidence of bodies or of any wrongdoing by the Serbs.

Back in June, in the full heat of a Balkan summer, some Nato officials and local residents said the deep shafts, the vats and the hydrochloric acid tanks of the Trepca mining complex where gold, silver, lead and zinc are extracted, were used as a disposal site to hide the bodies of ethnic Albanians killed by Serbian forces. The bodies were brought in trucks in the dead of night escorted by Serbian jeeps and troop carriers. They were dropped down the shafts, incinerated or dissolved by the acid.

The first day local Kosovan Albanians said they saw the trucks was back in September 1998 and they said they continued to enter the mine until a few days before Nato troops arrived in June. Some reports at the time said as many as 1,000 bodies a day had been incinerated in the mine over the past two months.

"There are Kosovar witnesses and still photos of these trucks," an anonymous American official was quoted as saying in Koha Ditore, the Kosovo Albanian daily, giving the report the imprint of authenticity.

The idea that the Serbs were using Trepca to hide the evidence of mass killings quickly caught on in western newspapers. "Trepca - the name will live alongside those of Belsen, Auschwitz and Treblinka," said The Mirror.

"It will be etched in the memories of those whose loved ones met a bestial end in true Nazi final solution fashion." Another report, in The New York Times, said residents on the edge of the mine reported an "unusual, pungent bittersweet smell, which they assumed to be burning bodies".

Trepca is near the town of Kosovska Mitrovica, in the sector of Kosovo assigned to the French forces. It was one of the first places to be searched by Nato peacekeeping troops after the war's end. And the French troops who entered the mines were certainly suspicious of Serb activities. They informed the Hague tribunal (ICTY) that they had uncovered piles of Albanians' clothing, shoes, family photographs and identity documents when they searched the smelting area and mine shafts. The French also found that the vats had been cleaned before the Serb troops stationed in the complex had left, suggesting they had destroyed the evidence of their crimes.

Trepca was clearly earmarked to be one of the keys to documenting mass killings of ethnic Albanians by Serbs in Kosovo, and the mine was immediately made a priority investigation site for the ICTY's forensic scientists, who began arriving in Kosovo in droves in June on the heels of the Nato victory. Their mission was to conduct a war crimes investigation unprecedented in military history.

The finding by the tribunal that there are no bodies at Trepca, and the fact that another infamous mass grave site at Ljubenic, near Pec, which was widely publicised as containing 350 bodies and which turned out to hold only five, are now being presented as evidence that the number of civilian ethnic Albanians killed by the Serbs is much lower than Nato had originally claimed.

One analysis by Stratfor, a private analytical group that looked at reports from the FBI and other police agencies sent to Kosovo to exhume bodies, suggests that the final death toll might be in the HUNDREDS, not thousands. And the estimate of a Spanish forensic surgeon, Emilio Perez Pujol, who has just returned home, disillusioned after investigating war crimes in Kosovo, is that as few as 2,500 civilians were killed.

In an outspoken interview, Pujol complained he had been sent to head a large investigation team attached to the ICTY, consisting of pathologists and police specialists, to work in the north of the country. But he found that what was publicised as a search for mass graves was "a semantic pirouette by the war propaganda machines, because we did not find one - NOT ONE - mass grave".

Pujol said his team had material for 2,000 autopsies and had expected to be in Kosovo for two and a half months. But in mid-September, after digging up 97 bodies in a cemetery, which showed "no signs of mutilation or torture, but rather death from shrapnel or bullets", he decided to go home.

"I called my people together and said: 'We've finished here.' I informed my government and told them the real situation. We had found a total of 187 bodies, 97 in one place, eight in another, four in another and so on. Four or five had died from natural causes." He added:


There never was much doubt in many reporters' minds, including my own, that the final death toll in Kosovo would turn out to be significantly lower than the more OUTRAGEOUS claims made by Nato. How much lower is still a question that cannot yet be answered.

The ICTY is rightly cautious about revealing its findings - the ICTY was never mandated, however, to do a proper body count.

In May the tribunal indicted Milosevic on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by his forces in Kosovo, and further indictments of figures in the (so called, MB) Serbian war machine are in the pipeline. The tribunal has now packed up for the winter as snow and cold weather grips Kosovo. It will resume next summer when the bulk of its work will be done, said Paul Risley, another spokesman.

It is a pity that, during the war, Nato and western politicians repeatedly and DELIBERATELY overstepped the mark in their passionate justification of military action against Serbia to end atrocities in Kosovo.

The gap between the hyperbole of the western propaganda machine and the realities of Kosovo were wide throughout the air campaign and led to the publication of WILD, misleading and just plain UNTRUE stories. Above all, there was a tendency to claim there was a systematic campaign of genocide in Kosovo.

Just some examples. On April 19, in the midst of Nato airstrikes against Serbia, the American state department reported that up to 500,000 Kosovar Albanians were missing and feared to be victims of Serbian genocide. On May 16, William Cohen, the American defence secretary, said that up to 100,000 ethnic Albanian men in Kosovo had vanished and might have been killed by the Serbs. "We've now seen about 100,000 military-aged men missing," Cohen told CBS. "They may have been murdered." A column of 35,000 refugees vanished and Kosovar Albanian sources reported that tens of thousands of people had been rounded up in a sports stadium and were never heard from again.

The war in Kosovo was Nato's first intervention in a sovereign country, so building a case to sway public opinion was crucial for it and member governments. "Public opinion wins wars," General Eisenhower said during the second world war; a remark that is as apt today as it was then.

War reporting is now experiencing extraordinary changes. In the case of Kosovo, western military officers, officials and ministers all CONSPIRED to push out the party line. There was spin-doctoring on an unprecedented scale, which has damaged Nato's reputation for fairness and truth. And journalists as well as some military officers have been angered by the way Nato tried to stop its own mistakes and incompetences being exposed.

All this has left a dedicated forensic scientist such as Pujol, who had come to Kosovo to help establish the truth, deeply irritated. In an interview with El Pais, he says: "We had been working with two parallel problems. One was the propaganda war. This allowed them to LIE, to FAKE photographs for the press, to publish pictures of mass graves, or whatever they had to influence world opinion in favour or against Milosevic or in favour of the Nato bombings. At first, based on the 'witnesses' who arrived in Albania, they spoke of the massacre of 22,000 people by the troops of Milosevic. Later, when the Nato troops entered, they spoke of 11,000 dead. Later they started to talk of 9,000, but I believe they will arrive at a much lower figure." ....

There never was a genocide in Kosovo. It was DISHONEST and wrong for western leaders to adopt the term in the beginning to give moral authority to the operation. Contrast the stark and emotive language over Kosovo, accompanying intervention, with the inaction of western governments when faced with a REAL genocide, as in Rwanda. When at least 500,000 people perished in 13 weeks in 1994, the American government FORBADE its officials to use the word "genocide" because of the moral and legal imperatives attached to it. The extermination continued."

Result of Nato bombing:

  • 2,500 Serb civilians dead
  • Further 2,000 exterminated by the Albanians after KFOR's entry
  • 3,700 seriously wounded 250,000 non-Albanian refugees in Serbia
  • The whole of Serbia devastated economically
  • The whole of the Balkans is an ecological disaster zone
  • Serbia is still under the economic blockade
  • No aid is allowed to hospitals caring for the maimed by Nato bombs.

Copyright 1999 Times Newspapers Ltd. .

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