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Human Rights Watch Condemns Violence by Security Forces in Kosovo

Calls on International Community to Investigate

Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned by credible allegations from local human rights organizations and the international media that the Serbian security forces committed gross abuses against the civilian population in military actions that took place from February 28 to March 1 in Kosovo. As many as twelve people may have been summarily executed. We urge the U.S. government, European Union and OSCE to coordinate and intensify diplomatic pressure on the Yugoslav authorities to avert an escalation of violence, and to undertake an immediate investigation to determine the nature of the violations.

The violence took place over the weekend February 28-March 1 in the Drenica region of Kosovo. According to media reports, two Serbian policemen were killed in an ambush by ethnic Albanians on Friday, February 27, in Likosane village near Glogovac. The next day, Serbian security forces with armored vehicles and attack helicopters swept through the region, sealing off between seven and ten ethnic Albanian villages. The security forces conducted house to house raids, ostensibly looking for members of the Kosova Liberation Army, a shadowy ethnic Albanian military organization that has taken credit for a series of violent attacks against Serbian authorities in Kosovo over the past year.

Local human rights groups, Albanian and international media reported that the security forces used indiscriminate force against civilians, especially in the villages of Cirez and Likosane. Witnesses told reporters that helicopters and APCs sprayed village rooftops with gunfire before security forces entered the village on foot, firing indiscriminately into private homes, although reports also indicate that the police were coming under fire from unidentified individuals, possibly from the private homes. Sixteen ethnic Albanians were killed, according to the Serbian authorities, although Albanian media outlets say the number may be as high as thirty. Foreign journalists have seen the bodies of six victims, including a pregnant woman, Rukia Nebihi, who had been shot in the face, and four brothers from the Sejdiu family, two of whom had been shot in the back.

According to the Prishtina-based Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms, ten members of the Ahmeti family and two of their guests, Behram Fazliu and Shaban Muja, were killed by Serbian security forces after having been detained, although this has not been independently confirmed. According to the Serbian government, the police confiscated a large amount of weapons and arrested a number of people, although their whereabouts and the charges against them are currently unknown. Four Serbian policemen were also killed during the action.

Human Rights Watch recognizes that the authorities may have to use force when confronted with an armed attack, but this force may only be applied to the extent necessary to perform their duties. Even if the hostilities in Kosovo rise to the level of an internal armed conflict, international humanitarian law clearly protects civilians and other individuals who are not taking part in the hostilities, including those who have been taken into detention. Human Rights Watch has not conducted an on-site investigation, but credible reports suggest that the Serb security forces may have either indiscriminately attacked civilian groups or even targeted individuals not involved in the fighting. Human Rights Watch is especially concerned that the ten members of the Ahmeti family and their two guests may have been killed by extrajudicial execution.

On March 2, a large crowd of ethnic Albanians [estimates range from 30,000-100,000 people] gathered at 10:00 a.m. in the center of Kosovo's capital, Prishtina, for a one-hour peaceful demonstration against the violence in Drenica. At 10:55 a.m., the police intervened with tear gas and water cannons, and began to beat the protesters. Local media report that at least two hundred people have sought medical attention for injuries sustained at the hands of the police, although the total number is still undetermined. A number of demonstrators were run over by police APCs, and at least four people were injured when a civilian car rammed into the crowds.

Human Rights Watch has confirmed that the police beat a number of ethnic Albanian journalists, including Veton Surroi, editor-in-chief of the daily Koha Ditore, Ibrahim Osmani, journalist of AFP and the Voice of America, Avni Spahiu, editor-in-chief of the daily Bujku, Agron Bajrami, a journalist at Koha Ditore, and Sherif Kunjufca, a journalist with Albanian Television. Police forces broke into the offices of Koha Ditore and beat people who had taken refuge inside. Police officers forced photographer Fatos Berisha to jump from a second story window. Police also broke into the offices of the daily Bujku.

Human Rights Watch unequivocally condemns the use of force in Prishtina on March 2 against those who had gathered peacefully to express discontent with the government's abusive and violent policies in Kosovo. Human Rights Watch is also deeply concerned by credible allegations that the security forces in Drenica may have targeted innocent civilians and performed extrajudicial executions.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Yugoslav government to allow international observers into the Drenica region to determine the nature of the violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. The government should also make public the names of all individuals who have been taken into custody and provide information about the charges made against them. Based on the Serbian police's use of torture against detainees in the past, there is reason to fear that those in detention may be subjected to physical abuse.

Human Rights Watch urges the international community to undertake an immediate investigation into the Drenica events. In addition, Kosovo should be a primary focus of the newly-appointed Special Representative of the OSCE to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Felipe Gonzalez.

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