Macedonian government troops committed grave abuses during an August offensive that claimed ten civilian lives in the ethnic Albanian village of Ljuboten, Human Rights Watch charged in a new report released today.
The report, titled Crimes Against Civilians: Abuses by Macedonian Forces in Ljuboten, August 10-12, 2001, charges that Macedonian police troops shot dead six civilians and burned at least twenty-two homes, sheds, and stores in the course of their August 12 house-to-house attack on the village.
The rights group pressed for an immediate investigation, including an inquiry into the role of Macedonian Minister of Interior Ljube Boskovski, who was present in the village on August 12, the day the worst violations occurred.
"The Macedonian government must answer to the people of Ljuboten," said Elizabeth Andersen, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division. "It is deeply disturbing that the Minister of Interior appears to have been so intimately involved in one of the worst abuses of the war. We demand an immediate and impartial investigation."
Human Rights Watch called on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to make public the results of its investigation into the events in Ljuboten. Human Rights Watch pressed for a separate investigation by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which has jurisdiction over war crimes committed in the Macedonia conflict.
Based on a two-week in-depth investigation, including a visit to Ljuboten, interviews with victims and witnesses, and examination of photographic evidence, the report also documented indiscriminate shelling that claimed another three lives in Ljuboten. Contrary to the government's account of the offensive, researchers found no evidence that the ethnic Albanian rebel National Liberation Army was present in the village.
Hundreds of ethnic Albanian civilians who tried to flee Ljuboten faced further abuse. Ethnic Macedonian vigilantes beat three men unconscious in full view of the Macedonian police on August 12. One of the men was shot in the head by the Macedonian police as he attempted to flee the beating. Police separated over one hundred men and boys from their wives and children and took them to police stations in Skopje, where they were subjected to severe beatings. Atulah Qaini, aged thirty-five, was taken away alive from the village by police officers, and his badly beaten and mutilated corpse was later recovered by family members from the city morgue. According to their relatives, at least twenty-four men from Ljuboten, including a thirteen-year-old boy, remain in police custody after suffering serious beatings from the police.
The police abuse suffered by ethnic Albanians fleeing Ljuboten is consistent with patterns of systematic abuse Human Rights Watch has documented in Macedonia over the past six months. Human Rights Watch urged international monitors to make a priority of monitoring and reporting on the conduct of Macedonian police.
"Endemic police abuse is a potential spark that could re-ignite the conflict in Macedonia," Andersen said. "We can't wait for a gradual restructuring of the police over the next three years. Immediate steps-including monitoring and accountability-are needed to curb abuse."