Kosovo death toll could exceed 10,000

More bodies, mass graves discovered each day


PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- At least 10,000 people were slaughtered by Serbian forces during their three-month campaign to drive the Albanians from Kosovo, according to war crimes investigators, NATO peacekeeping troops and humanitarian agencies struggling to keep up with fresh reports each day of newly discovered bodies and graves.

That death toll would be more than twice the number of about 4,600 dead estimated by the State Department in late May, shortly before the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague indicted Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and four of his top aides on charges of crimes against humanity. They were accused of ordering the Serbs' push to purge Kosovo of its Albanians, who made up 90 percent of the province's prewar population of 2.2 million.

"We're getting newly reported mass graves every day in all of Kosovo," said J. Clint Williamson, a legal officer and leading investigator for the tribunal. "The list keeps growing."

Yesterday afternoon, tribunal investigators and British troops went to a grassy roadside near the village of Lukare, a few miles northeast of here, where three grave sites were reported by local Albanians to contain possibly 100 or more bodies. The Albanians said the valley had been along the route of a transit march when Serbian forces drove them from the north. The villagers said their men were taken from a column of about 500 refugees.

By late afternoon, four bodies had been exhumed, and Lt. Col. Robin Hodges, a British spokesman, said the work was likely to continue all day.

On Friday, villagers returning to Goden, a settlement near the western town of Djakovica, discovered 20 bodies, with Yugoslav army logbooks describing how soldiers had emptied the village and killed people.

War crimes investigators here say they have been overwhelmed by the constant flood of reports of new grave sites. They add that the true toll may never be known, because many villagers bury their relatives without telling Western officials. Other deaths went unrecorded in the chaotic press of events when peacekeepers and United Nations relief workers arrived here a month ago. Other bodies may never be found, having been burned or carried off by Serbs in an effort to destroy evidence or are undiscovered and maybe forever lost in Kosovo's forests and mountains.

"Every time a villager comes back in, there are new body findings," said an international official familiar with the progress of the investigation. "You're dealing with a crime base that just keeps growing. It's just overwhelming."

The constant reports of new grave sites and a lack of coordination between various international agencies have meant that it is only in the past few days that investigators, peacekeeping troops and others have been able to compile reports giving a comprehensive view on the ground of the scale of the killing.

On Monday, the new system of attempting to pull together the information from sources into an aggregate number for The Hague tribunal had produced 201 grave sites with 4,900 bodies, according to Lt. Col. Robin Clifford, spokesman for Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson, commander of the Kosovo peacekeeping force.

By Thursday afternoon, Williamson said the numbers had grown to 280 grave sites with more than 6,100 bodies.

Clifford, among others, warned that those numbers underreported the actual number of deaths.

"It's very difficult to keep track of this," the military spokesman said. "At first, no one was even keeping any of these figures. A number of these bodies are being dug up by villagers and reburied. You could have groups of three, four or five bodies that do not get reported. We have a group of 30 unclaimed bodies, and that is not an unusual occurrence."

Based on these numbers, war crimes investigators and other international officials say the number of ethnic Albanians estimated to have been killed during the Serbian purge will reach at least 10,000.

The estimate of 10,000 is lower than totals suggested privately by some U.S. and NATO officials before the war ended.

Pub Date: 7/18/99

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