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  The Promise of Justice : Burning the Evidence  

U.S. accuses Milosevic forces of mass burnings of bodies in Kosovo

By BARRY SCHWEID
AP Diplomatic Writer
January 26, 2001

WASHINGTON (AP) - Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's forces burned bodies of victims of Serbian atrocities in Kosovo in a campaign to destroy the evidence of crimes, the State Department said Friday.

Information obtained by the U.S. government beginning in 1999 confirms there were massive killings "and there were attempts to burn bodies and otherwise cover up evidence at places throughout Kosovo," spokesman Richard Boucher said.

In a documentary aired Thursday that used interviews from men who said they were involved, Minnesota Public Radio and National Public Radio news reported up to 1,500 bodies were burned at a lead refinery in Trepca. That would account for about half of the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo still missing more than a year and a half after Milosevic pulled out of the province under U.S. and NATO pressure.

"The information that we had and continue to have corroborates the broad outline of the campaign by Milosevic's forces to destroy evidence of their crimes," Boucher said.

Asked specifically about Trepca, Boucher said, "We knew that this was one of the places that we were concentrating on, where there was activity going on. But if we were actually able to say in our report, `They burned bodies at this site,' I don't know."

Earlier, a spokeswoman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said investigators had found no evidence that would substantiate the report that elite forces loyal to Milosevic burned the bodies in a blast furnace at Trepca.

"Our people have had a report of this, but they found no evidence to substantiate it," OSCE spokeswoman Claire Trevena said.

Along with the United Nations and NATO, the 55-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe plays a key role in running the Serbian province of Kosovo.

Trevena said a French forensic team with sophisticated equipment that was called to search for remains of any bodies at Trepca found nothing there.

Boucher said the United States, in May and June 1999, briefed the international war crimes tribunal for Yugoslavia in The Hague, The Netherlands, "on the Serb campaign to destroy the evidence."

Boucher added: "It's a fact that we know of and that we've reported on in the past."

On Thursday, the Bush administration said through Boucher that it was disappointed Yugoslavia did not work out an agreement with the chief U.N. war crimes prosecutor to put Milosevic on trial for war crimes.

"These things need to be worked out, and the obligation flows from the government to the tribunal," he said.

Chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte rejected Yugoslavia's position. Still, she said in Belgrade she remains "cautiously optimistic" that Milosevic would be extradited to the Netherlands for trial on charges of involvement in atrocities by Serbian troops against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

He was indicted nearly two years ago, but like several other Serb leaders accused of war crimes in the Balkans, he has not faced trial.

In 1999, senior French police officials in Kosovo said the furnace at Trepca stopped operating shortly after the start of the crackdown on Kosovo's ethnic Albanians in late March 1999 and remained unused after Milosevic's forces pulled out.

Ashes at the site examined by the team also showed no traces that would back up the report, they said.

In Thursday's radio report, the men, identified only by their first names, said bodies were unearthed from freshly dug graves that were identified by NATO satellites after the French study was done.

At The Hague, Graham Blewitt, the U.N. tribunal's deputy prosecutor, said tribunal investigations at the Trepca mine "couldn't confirm" bodies had been disposed of by burning but suggested it was extremely difficult to arrive at a definite conclusion.

(Copyright 2001 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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