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This report documents serious breaches of international humanitarian law, the rules of war, committed in Kosovo from February to early September 1998. Future Human Rights Watch reports will provide evidence about atrocities in villages such as Donja Obrinja, Golubovac, and Vranic, the details of which were just emerging as this report went to press. (See appendices A,B and C). The vast majority of these abuses were committed by Yugoslav government forces of the Serbian special police (MUP) and the Yugoslav Army (VJ). Under the command of Yugoslav President Slobodan Miloševic, government troops have committed extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings, systematically destroyed civilian property, and attacked humanitarian aid workers, all of which are violations of the rules of war.

The Albanian insurgency, known as the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA, or UÇK in Albanian), has also violated the laws of war by such actions as the taking of civilian hostages and by summary executions. Although on a lesser scale than the government abuses, these too are violations of international standards, and should be condemned.

The primary responsibility for gross government abuses lies with Slobodan Miloševic, who rode to power in the late eighties by inciting Serbian nationalist chauvinism around the Kosovo issue. Now, after wars in Bosnia and Croatia, he has returned to the place where his post-communist career began.

The first atrocities took place in late February and early March in the Drenica region of central Kosovo, a stronghold of the KLA. Special police forces attacked three villages with artillery, helicopters, and armored vehicles, killing at least eighty-three people, twenty-four of them women and children. Although it is unclear to what extent the KLA was offering resistance, the evidence strongly suggests that at least seventeen people were executed after they had been detained or surrendered.

The police attack in Drenica was a watershed in the Kosovo conflict; thousands of outraged Albanians who had been committed to the nonviolent politics of Ibrahim Rugova decided to join the KLA. In the ensuing months, the KLA, called a “liberation movement” by most ethnic Albanians and a “terrorist organization” by the Yugoslav government, took control of an estimated 40 percent of Kosovo’s territory.

The first major government offensive began in mid-May, a few days after Miloševic agreed to U.S. demands that he meet with Rugova. The special police together with the Yugoslav Army attacked a string of towns and villages along the border with Albania in the west, with the specific intent of depopulating the region. Until then, the KLA had been receiving arms and fresh recruits from across the border.

Many villages from Pec in the north to Dakovica in the south were shelled while civilians were still present. Noncombatants who fled the attacks were sometimes fired on by snipers, and a still undetermined number of people were taken into detention. In three cases, helicopters marked with the Red Cross emblem reportedly fired on civilians. Landmines were placed in strategic points along the border, as well as along the southern border with Macedonia. Most villages in the region were looted and systematically destroyed, and farmers’ livestock was shot, to ensure that no one could return in the short-run. Fifteen thousand people fled to Albania and an estimated 30,000 went north to Montenegro.

The KLA’s first major offensive began on July 19 when it attempted to capture the town of Orahovac. The offensive failed, as the police recaptured the town two days later. In the fighting at least forty-two people were killed. Witnesses reported summary executions and the use of human shields by the police. Foreign journalists reported on mass graves, although these reports have not been confirmed. The extent of the abuses in Orahovac may remain unknown until the government allows an international forensics team to inspect the site.

The government forces intensified their offensive throughout July, August and September, despite promises from Miloševic that it had stopped. By mid-August, the government had retaken much of the territory held by the KLA, including their stronghold Mališevo. Unable to protect the civilian population, the KLA retreated into Drenica and some pockets in the West.

The government offensive, still ongoing, is an apparent attempt to crush civilian support for the rebels. Government forces have attacked civilians, systematically destroyed towns, and forced thousands of people to flee their homes. One attack killed seventeen civilians who were hiding in the woods, and another killed three humanitarian aid workers who were trying todeliver food. The police have been seen looting homes, destroying already abandoned villages, burning crops, and killing farm animals.

The majority of those killed and injured have been civilians. At least 250,000 people are currently displaced, many of them women and children now living without shelter in the mountains and woods. They face dire conditions with winter approaching. Many are too afraid to return to their homes, or have no homes to which they can return.

Despite some improvements, the government still restricts the ability of humanitarian aid agencies adequately to treat the internally displaced. On various occasions, the police have restricted access to needy populations, confiscated supplies, harassed and even attacked humanitarian aid workers. The government has justified the restricted access by arguing that some humanitarian organizations had distributed supplies, including arms, to the KLA.

The Yugoslav government has also restricted the work of domestic and foreign journalists who seek to report the atrocities. Some ethnic Albanian journalists have been threatened, detained, or beaten by the police. Independent radio and television stations in the Albanian language are denied licenses or, in one case, closed down.

The independent Serbian-language media is not exempt from state pressure. News wires, newspapers, and radio stations that report objectively on Kosovo are labeled “traitors” and sometimes threatened with legal action. A complex and contradictory legal framework has made it virtually impossible for independent radio or television stations to obtain a broadcast frequency. As was the case during the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, the state-run radio and television purposefully spreads disinformation and promotes images of “the enemy” intended to inflame the conflict.

The international media covering Kosovo also faces a number of restrictions on its work, starting with the denial of visas to critical journalists whom the state considers “anti-Serb.” One journalist was declared persona non grata. A number of foreign journalists have been beaten and fired upon by the police.

At least one hundred ethnic Albanians have “disappeared” in Kosovo since February 1998, about half of whom were last seen in the custody of the police. The precise number is impossible to determine since the Yugoslav authorities do not make public the number of people they have in detention. Some of the “disappeared” may be in prison, others may be dead. Others unaccounted for in the conflict may be in hiding, have fled Kosovo, or have joined the KLA.

According to the government, 538 ethnic Albanians have been arrested and charged with committing “terrorist acts.” In July and August, detained individuals increasingly included human rights activists, humanitarian aid workers, political party members, doctors, and lawyers, many of whom were physically abused. The use of torture against detainees is widespread, and five people are known to have died from abuse in prison.

The KLA has also committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, including the taking of hostages and extrajudicial executions. An estimated 138 ethnic Serbs, and a number of ethnic Albanians and Roma, are missing in circumstances in which KLA involvement is suspected: at least thirty-nine of them were last seen in KLA custody. In some villages the KLA tried to drive ethnic Serbs from their homes. In some cases, elderly Serbs stayed behind, either too old to flee or unwilling to abandon their homes. Some of these people are currently missing and feared dead.

On September 9, the police announced that they had found a number of bodies of people reportedly killed by the KLA near Glodjane. By September 16, the authorities had gathered thirty-four bodies, eleven of whom were identified, including some ethnic Albanians. Before that, the most serious KLA abuse involved the reported execution of twenty-two Serbian civilians in the village of Klecka, where the police claimed to have discovered human remains and a kiln used to cremate the bodies. The manner in which the allegations were made, however, raises serious questions and underlines the importance of an investigation by an impartial forensic investigations team, which should examine Klecka, as well as the other areas where summary executions have been reported.

Despite the seriousness of these abuses, the international community has failed to take any serious action to stop the killing. Miloševic continues to be viewed by many as a legitimate and trustworthy negotiating partner.

The U.S. government, European Union, United Nations, and NATO have all issued strong warnings, including participating in military maneuvers in neighboring Macedonia and Albania in June and September. But threats have come and gone as the abuses mounted. Punitive measures have been slow, weak, and rapidly rescinded when Miloševic offered the slightest concession. The tentative international response has been driven by fear of either endorsing Kosovo independence or being drawn into a long-term commitment of forces to maintain a peaceful settlement within former Yugoslavia.

The consequences of this policy will be catastrophic, not only for the Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo. An ongoing conflict will have a direct and destabilizing impact on the neighboring republic of Montenegro, and on the bordering countries of Bosnia and Albania, already fragile, as well as Macedonia, where fighting could draw in Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey. It also ensures that Miloševic will remain the head of a corrupt and authoritarian Yugoslavia that will continue to be a threat to the region’s stability.

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