Reports of Kosovo atrocities accepted with little proof

Exaggerations by NATO and compliance of media cause credibility gap

War In Yugoslavia

April 22, 1999|By BOSTON GLOBE

WASHINGTON -- Experts in surveillance photography, wartime propaganda and Balkan diplomacy say there is every reason to believe that atrocities are being committed against the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo, but little reason at this time to accept reports of huge numbers of dead and missing Kosovars that are being bandied about.

The U.S. State Department said Monday that a half-million ethnic Albanian men are unaccounted for in the disputed province, which is part of Serb-dominated Yugoslavia but 90 percent Albanian, and a department spokesman hinted that 100,000 may have met with foul play. The statements have stoked public outrage, but they are based on no publicly available documents or photographs.

"In all these cases, the first numbers we hear are overestimates," said Farouk El-Baz, a pioneer in photography from space who directs Boston University's Center for Remote Sensing.

"I am surprised we are not seeing more of what is on the ground. There must be more" that U.S. officials could show, El-Baz added. "Sensing equipment is now at a state that should make these things more obvious and more certain."

In the 28 days since NATO began bombing Yugoslavia in what was portrayed as an effort to stop attacks on and expulsions of Kosovar Albanians, several instances of misinformation have sparked questions about the information being released by alliance and U.S. officials.

After Yugoslavia charged that a refugee convoy had been bombarded by NATO jets, U.S. Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the supreme commander of NATO, spun the story around, blaming Yugoslav forces for an attack that killed dozens of civilians. Clark then retracted the statement, and NATO took responsibility for the attack.

In the same incident, the Pentagon released a taped interview with an American pilot purportedly involved in the bombing, but it turned out that the pilot was describing a different mission.

NATO and the State Department have repeatedly said that they had evidence that members of the Albanian intelligentsia were being executed. While some of those named were killed, others turned up alive. Among them was Baton Haxhiu, editor of the independent ethnic Albanian paper, Koha Ditore, who reportedly heard himself pronounced dead by NATO officials in Brussels.

U.S. and NATO officials have repeatedly asserted that they had evidence that Yugoslav forces were committing crimes against humanity and mass genocide. This week, they said, using a satellite photo to underscore their point, that forces had dug mass graves pointing toward Mecca.

"Long neat rows of individual graves, 150 very neatly dug graves -- these are not mass graves," said MIT professor Barry Posen, a specialist in the history of warfare. "It's weird to think they would have a mass murder, recruit grave diggers, and properly orient the graves toward Mecca so as to give them some semblance of a proper Muslim burial."

Posen said hunger for news has led to nearly unquestioning acceptance of official statements and superficial appearances by the Western media, allowing the politicians and generals leading the air campaign to use the refugees to justify the bombing.

"Because the press has not gone back to investigate and dispel `facts' that were staked out at the beginning that said there were already hundreds of thousands of refugees," Posen said, "NATO is able to absolve itself and make great use of very tragic pictures of people in very tragic circumstances to say, `See, this is why we fought the war, to reverse this.' "

Nongovernmental specialists and analysts contacted about the various NATO claims uniformly said they believe atrocities are occurring, and stressed that they do not want to be interpreted as defending or excusing these acts.

But, said Robert Hayden, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and East European Studies, the State Department reports of 100,000 to 500,000 unaccounted-for Albanian men "are ludicrous -- the story is just ludicrous.

"NATO is running a propaganda campaign, there's no question about that," Hayden said. "There have been lots of discrepancies in the official story, but what is interesting is that, until now, there has been amazingly little scrutiny of that story."

However, there are explanations other than propaganda campaigning for NATO and the United States to hold back on high-altitude or space photos that could document the location of dead and missing Kosovars.

"The means we have of gathering information are very sophisticated. They are extraordinarily detailed," said Swanee Hunt, a former U.S. ambassador to Austria now at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "But the intelligence community is very sensitive about their methods maybe not because the Serbs are watching, maybe because the Chinese are."

Pub Date: 4/22/99

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