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Ethnic Albanian rebels in Macedonia brutally tortured, sexually abused and mutilated five ethnic Macedonian road workers after abducting them from the Skopje-Tetovo highway on Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said today.

The abductions were part of an increasing pattern of illegal detentions and kidnappings by ethnic Albanian fighters who call themselves the National Liberation Army (NLA). Human Rights Watch reported that it has separately received information about the recent abduction by NLA fighters of at least fourteen Macedonian civilians from the city of Tetovo alone.

"Abductions and illegal detentions by the NLA are rapidly rising." said Elizabeth Andersen, Executive Director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "The NLA has failed to account for at least fourteen Macedonians abducted from Tetovo during the fighting in late July."

Three of the road workers were working near the village of Grupcin on the main Skopje-Tetovo road at about 8 a.m. on Tuesday, August 7, 2001, when they were abducted by uniformed members of the NLA, who came from the woods nearby. The NLA fighters ordered them to walk to a nearby camp, and then brutally abused them. At about noon the same day, the ethnic Albanian rebels abducted two more workers from the same area, and subjected them to similar abuse. Previous incidents in the area suggest that the NLA mistreatment of the road crew was intended to stop the road crew from working on the road.

Human Rights Watch interviewed two of the five workers separately, and found their detailed accounts credible and consistent. The two men showed Human Rights Watch their severe wounds, which were consistent with their accounts.

The abuse started with a severe beating. Then one of the rebels used a knife to carve letters on the Macedonians' backs and to cut them on other parts of their bodies. One of the rebels forced the men to perform oral sex on each other, and tried to anally rape one of the men with a wooden stick. The men were then beaten more before they were driven to a nearby village and released shortly after 7 p.m. Tuesday.

One of the men interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated:

One of [the NLA rebels] took a spade and started beating us with the metal part. We were sitting on the ground then. He said to put our palms on our knees, and he started beating us with the spade, trying to hit us in the head. We raised our hands to protect our heads, and everytime we put our hands up, he would beat us on our legs and arms. . . . Then he left, he was probably called away and this other guy came. There were two others, they were standing by our sides with machine guns since the beginning.

The one who came was a bit thin. He had very short hair, and was going a bit bald . . . . He told us to take off our T-shirts. He pulled out a knife, it was a folding knife. Then he asked everyone for their names. He started carving in my back, I didn't know what he was writing, but it was for about five minutes. It was painful, but I couldn't move. I just firmed my body to take the pain.

After the cutting, the NLA fighter ordered the men to lie down, and ordered one of the men to anally rape one of the others with a stick, before grabbing the stick and attempting to rape the man himself with the stick. He then forced the men to perform oral sex on each other. The men were then kept for several hours in pits where they were regularly beaten by the NLA fighters. Before being released, one of the NLA fighters took his pistol, cocked it, and shoved it in the mouth of one of the abducted men, threatening to kill him if he told about the abuse.

Human Rights Watch has confirmed that at least fourteen ethnic Macedonian men were abducted by NLA fighters from the town of Tetovo during heavy fighting in the end of July, and expressed deep concern about the fate of the men.

Human Rights Watch raised the cases of the missing ethnic Macedonians with a regional NLA commander for the Tetovo region, who uses the code name Matoshi, and the commander stated that he had no information about the cases. According to their families, the ethnic Macedonian men were last seen in the custody of NLA fighters. Human Rights Watch is still investigating other reports it has received of abducted Macedonians in NLA-controlled areas in recent days.

"We are deeply concerned about the safety of ethnic Macedonians abducted by the Albanian rebels in recent weeks," said Andersen. "These men should be released now, the NLA must bring those responsible for these serious abuses to account, and take steps to ensure that such crimes cease."

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