Human Rights Watch today cautiously welcomed the Yugoslav Army's announcement this week that a reported 183 army members have been charged with committing crimes in Kosovo.

"While we would welcome fair and independent trials of these lower-ranking soldiers in Belgrade, the international community should not accept this as an alternative to the swift transfer of Slobodan Milosevic and other indictees to the custody of the ICTY," said Holly Cartner executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division.

In a brief statement released on April 24, the Yugoslav Army's General Staff stated that investigations had been initiated against 245 members for "killings and putting in danger the life, dignity, morals and property of citizens" in the period between March 1998 and June 1999 in Kosovo. The army prosecutor brought the indictment against 183 persons.

"It is unclear from the Army's statement how the courts in Serbia will gather testimony from Albanians living in Kosovo, who the key witnesses to the alleged crimes are, or whether the proceedings will be public," added Cartner. "Until the Army clarifies these questions, it is hard to know whether this is a genuine effort to provide justice or merely a public relations exercise."

Serbian police and the Yugoslav Army killed an estimated 2,000 ethnic Albanians between February 1998 and March 1999, during an armed conflict with the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Between March and June 1999, during the NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, at least 4,000 Albanians were killed. In addition, approximately 3,500 persons remain missing from the conflict, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Yugoslav forces forcibly expelled more than 850,000 ethnic Albanians from the province.

Human Rights Watch research established that the Yugoslav Army had overall command during the war. The army controlled the main roads and borders, coordinating and facilitating the "ethnic cleansing." However, the police and Serbian paramilitaries were the forces most involved in the direct "ethnic cleansing" and destruction of villages, with artillery support from the army. Noting that most crimes were committed by paramilitaries and police units, Human Rights Watch urged the Serbian authorities to investigate these forces and prosecute those believed to be responsible.

"The Army's announcement is an indirect acknowledgment that crimes against Kosovo Albanians were numerous and serious," Cartner said. "Only open and fair trials will underscore the nature of crimes committed by Serbian and Yugoslav forces in Kosovo."

To date, a single case before Yugoslav courts has resulted in a conviction for crimes committed during the Kosovo conflict. On December 20, 2000, a military court in the city of Nis convicted a Yugoslav Army major and two reservists for killing an Albanian couple in March 1999. They were sentenced to four and a half years in prison.