(New York) - Human Rights Watch strongly condemned the Yugoslav government for denying visas to a team of investigators from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

The tribunal submitted its visa requests to the Yugoslav authorities on October 15, days after Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic promised U.S. negotiator Richard Holbrooke that war crimes investigators would have access to Kosovo. The tribunal's Chief Prosecutor, Louise Arbour, requested visas for herself and a team of ten investigators to visit Kosovo and investigate allegations of war crimes committed by both sides in the conflict between the Yugoslav authorities and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

Yesterday Arbour was informed that the team would be allowed to visit only Belgrade, not Kosovo; that only two investigators would be allowed to accompany her and her deputy; and that the visa would permit only a single entry, for seven days. The Yugoslav authorities further told Arbour that her team would not be permitted to conduct any investigations during its trip to Belgrade. The Prosecutor has declined to accept the limited visa offered.

"Once again, Slobodan Milosevic has bought himself time with empty promises," stated Holly Cartner, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "If he is allowed to get away with this, it will be like giving him a green light to continue his repressive campaign, and the peace process in Kosovo will be doomed before it even starts."

The Yugoslav authorities have obstructed the work of the tribunal since its inception, harboring suspects indicted for crimes committed in Bosnia and, more recently, refusing to accept that the tribunal has jurisdiction over crimes committed in Kosovo. In recent statements, Yugoslav government authorities have claimed that the International Tribunal's competence to investigate events in Kosovo had ended upon conclusion of the Holbrooke agreements. In a concession to Milosevic, the U.S. negotiators left out reference to the ICTY in those agreements, referring instead to Security Council resolutions, which in turn acknowledge the right of the tribunal to investigate in Kosovo. "Unfortunately, the U.S. negotiators missed a crucial opportunity-when the threat of NATO airstrikes had Milosevic at the bargaining table-to reaffirm Milosevic's obligation to cooperate with the tribunal," said Cartner. "Their concession was obviously a grave error."

Yugoslav government officials have also argued that the tribunal has no rights to investigate in Kosovo because the violence did not constitute an "armed conflict," a requirement of tribunal jurisdiction. Human Rights Watch has concluded that an armed conflict commenced in Kosovo on February 28, when Serbian special police forces launched their first large-scale, military attack on villages. From that date, the Kosovo Liberation Army and the government were engaged in ongoing hostilities involving military offensives, front lines, and the use of attack helicopters and heavy artillery. At times, as much as 40% of Kosovo territory was controlled by the KLA, which is an organized force led by regional commanders, capable of organizing systematic attacks and imposing discipline on their fighters.

Since March, the Security Council has repeatedly called for a tribunal investigation in Kosovo, implicitly acknowledging that an armed conflict was taking place. On July 7, the Prosecutor explicitly stated that she had concluded that the nature and scale of the conflict indicated that an armed conflict was taking place. The U.S. government has also publicly endorsed this conclusion. "There is no question that an armed conflict has been taking place in Kosovo," Cartner said. "Moreover, such legal challenges to the tribunal's jurisdiction should be raised before the tribunal's judges, after an indictment has been brought and a suspect arrested, not by a government as a bar to an investigation."

Human Rights Watch has conducted three investigations to Kosovo this year and documented serious violations, committed disproportionately by the Yugoslav forces. The organization is particularly eager for international investigators to reach massacre sites its researchers uncovered last month. "We have documented the summary executions and indiscriminate shelling that have taken the lives of hundreds of civilians and sent thousands into hiding in the woods," stated Cartner. "But the tribunal needs to collect that evidence so the perpetrators can be tried for their horrible crimes."