Bosnian war crimes teams want NATO assistance Mine sweeps, security sought for grave sites

April 26, 1996|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BERLIN -- War crimes investigators in Bosnia might never be able to exhume bodies from the mass graves of Srebrenica unless reluctant NATO forces press for mine-clearing operations and provide more security, investigation sources say.

It is a shortcoming that could weaken genocide cases against Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic, among others.

Forensic investigators for the United Nations International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia had hoped to begin digging up bodies this summer at several of about a dozen sites near Srebrenica, locations where up to 8,000 Bosnian Muslims are believed to have been massacred by Bosnian Serb forces in July.

But according to one source close to the tribunal investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, "At this point we're going nowhere because we can't get the kind of security we need. We're no closer to doing any exhumations than we ever were."

The gloomy outlook is contrary to the image offered by recent publicity, which has focused mostly on the work of six investigators who earlier this month completed a two-week mission visiting several of the suspected killing and burial sites.

That expedition, commuting to the sites daily from safer overnight quarters in Tuzla, Bosnia, ended two weeks ago after only a light amount of digging. While producing valuable evidence of its own -- skeletons and decomposed corpses found above ground or near the surface, sets of blindfolds apparently worn by shooting victims and telltale bloodstains at killing sites -- it literally barely scratched the surface in terms of forensic examination.

It also turned up worrisome signs of tampering at the grave sites, further underscoring the need for increased security at the sites. And at a few sites there were so many mines, sometimes plainly visible in the grass right next to the road, that investigators didn't even leave their vehicles.

The preliminary work also required relatively little security. Between 50 and 100 U.S. troops guarded the daily forays, setting up on a perimeter about a mile in diameter, according to U.S. Col. Mark Brzozowski, a spokesman for NATO's peace implementation force (IFOR) based in Tuzla.

Coming up with further and potentially more valuable evidence will require digging deeper, an exhaustive operation that would last four-to-six weeks at smaller sites, and up to 12 weeks at larger sites. Such efforts will require round-the-clock security, to protect not only the diggings, but also expensive equipment, such as generators, excavation tools and scientific devices that would be left at small base camps. (The investigators themselves would probably stay overnight at nearby towns). And at some sites, mines will have to be cleared.

Drawing the line

But NATO has drawn the line on every one of those needs.

"IFOR is not responsible for those things," said Colonel Brzozowski. "It's not part of our agreement with the tribunal." That means no de-mining, and no overnight protection of sites or equipment, he said.

Officially, the tribunal has said nothing about whether it is unhappy with the arrangement. "This is an operational issue, and we never comment on operational issues," tribunal spokesman Christian Chartier said recently.

The peace agreement for Bosnia signed in Dayton, Ohio, leaves the security of the mass grave sites "up to the local police," Colonel Brzozowski said, but local Bosnian Serb police forces near Srebrenica can hardly be expected to be impartial. They include former soldiers from the same army accused of carrying out the massacres, the burials and subsequent tampering.

Contracting for help

If the tribunal wants impartial help, Colonel Brzozowski said, it could "contract for outside security, just like you would at a construction site in the United States."

That's unlikely, tribunal sources say, because their budget is already stretched to the limit.

As for the mines surrounding some sites, Colonel Brzozowski said, "We provide them with all the mine data we have," but, "It is the responsibility of the former warring parties to de-mine."

Private foundations are helping pay for mine removal in some parts of the country, but priority has been given to residential areas and former battlefronts.

Even if financial backing for mine removal at the grave sites were found, it would be up to local Serbian authorities to authorize the work.

Investigators find the lack of security frustrating partly because IFOR troops clearly have the firepower to either do the job themselves or pressure Serbian authorities to do it. That was apparent in the success U.S. troops had in ensuring access to the sites during the recent investigation.

'Hollow promise'

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