Serbs put refugees in path of attack, survivors say

800 were locked inside warehouse fence hours before NATO strikes

War In Yugoslavia

May 31, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

KUKES, Albania -- They had no choice but to spend the night outside a warehouse off the highway in Korisa, Haxhere Palushi said yesterday. There were 700 Albanian refugees like her, and Serb soldiers herded them all inside the building's iron outer gates, promising they would be allowed to leave Kosovo the next day.

Then, she said, one soldier clicked the gate shut with a padlock.

"One young guy said, `Why did they lock us in? Something is happening,' " she said.

A few hours later, just before midnight on May 13, NATO planes again bombed the village, in southern Kosovo, killing what Serb officials and survivors say were more than 80 Albanian refugees. Palushi sat in a field all night watching her 4-year-old daughter, Diana, bleed from shrapnel wounds in her left leg and then, at dawn, die.

The attack on Korisa killed perhaps more Albanian civilians than any other in the two-month NATO air campaign, which has been criticized for its fatal mistakes. At the time, Serb authorities, claiming that the refugees had merely stopped at Korisa for the night, said the incident showed why NATO should stop the bombing.

But three Albanian survivors -- women interviewed here yesterday for some of the few eyewitness accounts of the bombing -- said they had no doubt they were put there intentionally.

"They used us as human shields," Palushi said. "It was all planned."

While the accounts could not be independently confirmed, they appeared to give weight to similar allegations by the Pentagon and NATO that Serb forces have placed civilians near sites, such as bridges or military installations, that could be vulnerable to attack.

These accounts suggest that in Korisa, at least, the refugees had been calculatingly placed in harm's way, if not to deter a NATO attack then to create the kind of civilian casualties that the Serbs hope could erode support for the air campaign.

NATO officials said the planes specifically targeted the building among other military sites in the town without knowing that civilians were there.

The survivors said that Serb forces opened fire on the refugees as they fled after the Korisa bombing.

Those who escaped made their way to Prizren, where some received treatment for wounds. On Saturday, they were bused out of Kosovo by the Serbs, apparently the first batch of survivors from the Korisa attack to get to Albania.

Pub Date: 5/31/99

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