Returning refugees find gruesome remains in wrecked Kosovo
June 17, 1999
PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (CNN) -- Convoys of refugees rolling into Kosovo on the heels of NATO peacekeepers uncovered more grisly evidence of atrocities Thursday, rapidly lengthening a list of horrors blamed on retreating Yugoslav forces.
The growing number of reports of mass graves and burned houses in Kosovo put increased pressure on the NATO-led Kosovo implementation force, known as KFOR, to defend Serbs from angry Kosovars seeking retribution.
Meanwhile, U.S. and Russian negotiators in Helsinki, Finland, extended talks on incorporating Russia's role in KFOR. U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen said two days of meetings had made "great progress" but that the two sides had not yet finalized an agreement.
KFOR spokesmen said Thursday that the withdrawal of Yugoslav troops from the Serbian province was proceeding ahead of schedule. But many Serb civilians are flooding out of Kosovo as well, fearing the absence of Yugoslav security forces leaves them vulnerable to ethnic Albanian revenge.
Clergy from a historic Serbian Orthodox monastery in Srbica, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Pristina, said Kosovo Liberation Army fighters desecrated the religious site and terrorized a priest and several nuns for four days, from Sunday to Wednesday.
French peacekeepers put the Devic monastery under guard and sought to reassure nervous Serbs that they could protect them.
The 15th-century monastery is one of the shrines from which the Serbian nation draws its cultural identity. Part of the agreement that ended NATO's 11-week bombing campaign provides for a handful of Yugoslav troops to return to the province later to protect sites like Devic.
About 15,000 troops from NATO countries have gone into Kosovo since the end of fighting a week ago, said Lt. Col. Robin Clifford, KFOR's spokesman in Pristina. At the same time, 35,000 Yugoslav army and Serb special police troops have left.
That puts them ahead of the schedule set by the cease-fire agreement, which demands that all Yugoslav troops leave Kosovo by midnight Sunday.
Fearing reprisals from the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians driven out during NATO's air war against Yugoslavia, about 50,000 Serbs already have fled the province as their former neighbors return.
KFOR commander Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson and Serbian Orthodox leader Patriarch Pavle have urged them to stay, and Clifford said the Serb exodus had slowed.
KFOR will protect "all the ordinary, decent citizens of Kosovo, regardless of their ethnic background or religious persuasion," Clifford said.
"I have also spoken to those who say they are perfectly content to say here, certainly those here in Pristina, as long as KFOR troops are here to protect them," he said.
KFOR troops have had several encounters with the KLA, including one Wednesday in which U.S. Marines disarmed a group of 16 guerrillas. The newest reports of KLA anti-Serb activities came as reports surfaced of a possible agreement among rebel leaders to lay down their arms.
Clifford said he could not comment on any possible agreement with the KLA, but said, "We view any actions by the KLA -- or any other armed bands of paramilitaries or armed groups that cause friction or raise tensions -- as being entirely unacceptable."
Pavle planned to stay in Pec, in southern Kosovo, in an effort to reassure Serbs and convince them to remain in the region Serbs consider the cradle of their society. But Pec was largely a ghost town Thursday, with only about 200 of its prewar population of 90,000 remaining.
During the war, NATO accused Serb-led troops of carrying out a campaign of terror against ethnic Albanian civilians, and Kosovo Albanians are now bringing numerous graves to the attention of NATO troops and news organizations.
In a village near Pec, residents showed CNN a site where they said 35 people were killed by Serb forces.
The villagers said that on May 14, Yugoslav troops herded the men into four houses and set them on fire. Three men lived to tell the story, and Italian troops secured the grave sites for international investigators.
Elsewhere, in a village near Prizren, an ethnic Albanian man showed CNN's Christiane Amanpour the charred rubble of a house where he said 26 family members had stayed behind. Inside the debris, numerous sets of bones -- spines, rib cages and cracked-open skulls -- littered the floor.
British officials said as many as 10,000 ethnic Albanians may have been killed in Kosovo, their remains buried at more than 100 sites. Clifford acknowledged the discoveries, but stopped short of attributing them entirely to massacres.
"Let's not forget there has been a war here, and people die in wars and people are buried in wars," he said.
In addition to grave sites, British troops participating in the KFOR peacekeeping mission have discovered what Foreign Office Minister Geoff Hoon called a torture center in the cellar of Serbia's special police headquarters in Pristina, Kosovo's provincial capital.
And as Yugoslav troops leave Kosovo, they are burning houses and occasionally shooting people as they go, said Adm. Ian Garnett, Britain's chief of joint operations.
In the last days of the war, a U.N. tribunal charged Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and four top officials with war crimes in connection with the violence in Kosovo.
The tide turns: Kosovo Albanians return home as Serbs flee
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