The National Liberation Army (NLA) physically abused eight ethnic Serb civilians whom it arbitrarily detained in the Macedonian village of Matejce last week.

"These villagers were clearly not combatants," said Holly Cartner, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "The NLA has a responsibility to respect international law, just as much as the Macedonian government does."

According to interviews conducted in Macedonia this week by Human Rights Watch, the NLA arbitrarily detained two different groups of Serbian civilians in the mosque of Matejce, a village with a mixed Serbian and Albanian population west of Kumanovo. The village has been the location of ongoing fighting between the NLA and Macedonian forces for much of the past week.

Both Albanian and Serbian witnesses said that all of the villagers of Matejce had decided to try to avoid the fighting between the NLA and Macedonian forces, and ethnic Albanian elders of the village had requested that the NLA stay out of the village. However, following heavy fighting in the nearby villages of Vaksince and Slupcane, NLA fighters entered Matejce around May 24 and attacked the government police station, pulling the village of Matejce into the conflict.

Sixty-year-old Krunislav Filipovic, an ethnic Serb, was taken from his home by NLA fighters on the evening of May 24. He was taken to the village mosque together with three other elderly ethnic Serbs, he told Human Rights Watch. All four were fathers of Macedonian policemen, apparently the reason for their detention. At the village mosque, NLA fighters beat the four men with their fists and gun butts and kicked them. On several occasions, the men were subjected to mock executions, and NLA fighters sharpened knives in front of the men, threatening to behead them. The men were kept in detention, abused for four days, and then released in the village of Otla, where they were told to walk towards Macedonian government positions. NLA soldiers fired above their heads as they fled.

Two of Filipovic's fellow captives remain hospitalized in Kumanovo as of June 8. Police guards at the hospital refused to allow Human Rights Watch researchers access to the men, thereby preventing the researchers from documenting their injuries and providing a more complete description of the incident. Human Rights Watch's investigation was further impeded by the refusal of the Macedonian police to allow access to the Serbian-inhabited village of Umni Dol.

Seventy-eight-year-old Bozidar Trojanovic was also detained at the village mosque by NLA fighters on May 25, together with three other men and three women, most of them elderly. The four men in the group were beaten at the mosque, according to Trojanovic, although the women were not physically abused:

They started kicking our [the men's] legs with their boots. We kept silent; there was nothing we could do. Then they ordered us to stand up and face the wall, and to bend our heads. They kept hitting us on the back of the head. Then they told us to turn around and to turn our faces to one side. They slapped my [male relative] four times on each side. Then they told him to hit his brother just like that.

The second group of ethnic Serbs was detained in a guarded basement with ten other Serbs from Matejce for four days before being released. On May 28, they were released when the ethnic Albanian inhabitants of Matejce left the village.

Human Rights Watch has also looked into a number of other reports of NLA abuse that have appeared in the Macedonian-language press or come from the Macedonian government. To date, Human Rights Watch researchers have not been able to confirm many of these reports, but are continuing to investigate these allegations. Human Rights Watch has also asked the Macedonian authorities for specific details on a number of allegations they have made regarding NLA abuses, but has received no concrete information to date.