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Cloud of Controversy Obscures Truth About Kosovo Killings

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For days now, a thick winter fog has shrouded a stretch of the road to Racak, and there’s no way around it for anyone who goes looking for the truth of how at least 40 ethnic Albanian villagers died there.

A week has passed since U.S. diplomat William Walker, who heads a team of international peace monitors here in separatist Kosovo province, accused Serbian security forces of “an unspeakable atrocity,” and what struck him then as horrific facts are slowly being obscured by a cloud of a different sort.

It is the sort that comes from the mouths of politicians and diplomats, rebels and soldiers, journalists and propagandists. Racak’s truth may yet melt into it and become part of the ugly mystery that is Balkan war.

Several French and British newspapers, with respected names like Le Figaro, Le Monde and the Times of London, have published stories suggesting that Walker and his monitors might have been duped by a conspiracy concocted by ethnic Albanian guerrillas.

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The articles cite partial video footage, shot by a Serbian cameraman with Associated Press Television, of the police operation in the village of Racak on Jan. 15. The footage suggests that corpses were moved before peace monitors started investigating the next day, the reports claim.

The stories, which have been posted on pro-Serb Web sites, add some weight to the Yugoslav government’s insistence that guerrillas tampered with the bodies and moved some of them into a ditch to fake a massacre scene.

Yugoslav authorities have gone even further, claiming that guerrilla fighters probably removed uniforms from dead rebels and then dressed the corpses to look like simple villagers.

Walker has even been accused of helping them.

No matter how far the claims stretch the imagination, Walker and his aides have to answer them each day.

“Our people who went up there saw no indications the bodies had been dragged,” a senior source from Walker’s mission, who asked not to be identified, said Friday. “You don’t move that number of bodies without leaving marks on the ground.

“The guys I saw--and we have a thousand pictures of them--have holes from bullets and stuff, and their clothes are twisted, but those clothes were on those bodies when those guys were killed.”

The Associated Press’ own reports about the massacre allegations have not cited the news agency’s video footage or used it as evidence to support either side of the argument.

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Yet Walker’s French deputy, Gabriel Keller, was quoted by a Yugoslav news agency casting doubt on his boss’ unequivocal charges. Keller now insists that a Serbian reporter misquoted his poorly translated statement.

Lost somewhere in the impassioned debate over what really happened in Racak are the accounts of survivors, whose stories, told in various places many miles apart over the past several days, are remarkably similar on the main points.

About half a dozen of them are wounded villagers whom peace monitors brought to a hospital in the provincial capital, Pristina. Police then refused to let them be interviewed by Walker’s human rights experts.

After three days of trying, Walker’s team finally did speak to survivors in hospital, and their accounts strengthen the case against Serbian security forces, a source on Walker’s team said.

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The stories of those survivors, whom Serbian police sealed off from manipulation by guerrilla propagandists like a kind of control group, corroborate those of other survivors interviewed during the past week, a source said.

After issuing an expulsion order against Walker because of his accusations, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic backed down late Thursday and allowed Walker to stay in the country by freezing the order.

Walker’s team believes that the security forces executed villagers in Racak in revenge for a guerrilla ambush that killed three police officers Jan. 8.

More than a dozen survivors interviewed in Racak or after fleeing to nearby mountains and the southern city of Urosevac during the past week gave detailed descriptions of that day that often matched precisely.

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By their accounts, police began shelling Racak about 7 a.m. on Jan. 15 and slowly advanced into the village. Within an hour, they had shot dead Ajet Brahimi Emini, 40, as he tried to escape through his backyard, his brother Ismet Emini said.

As villagers ran for cover, more than 50 of them hid in the cellar and barn of Sadik Osman’s house, and the search for witnesses last week found several whose stories placed them in that group.

They are all consistent on this crucial point: An officer wearing a black ski mask, black gloves and a black uniform walked into the cellar and demanded to know where weapons were hidden.

He drew a knife tucked into his boot and threatened the women and children with it, said Valdete Ramadani, 16. The officer came and went at least three times, locking the door behind him.

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They all agree that a small window allowed them to escape from the cellar, although they describe the tools used to break it open variously as a scythe or long knife.

Valdete said his 16-year-old brother, Metush, has deep cuts along the knuckles of both hands where he smashed the cellar window and unlocked the door to help free others.

Halim Jakupi, 12, said he was with his father, Eshref, in the barn with about 27 other men and that police told the boy to go join the other children in the cellar.

The boy remembers his father’s words very clearly as he told Halim to listen to the men with the guns and do as he was told.

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“He said, ‘It’s OK, don’t be afraid. Everything will be all right,’ ” Halim said Friday in Urosevac. Halim didn’t see his father again until later that day. He was dead, in a group of several corpses lying in a shallow ditch, Halim said.

Men who say they were in Osman’s barn described how police rounded them up, ordered them to lie face down on the ground, with their hands behind their heads, while a police officer beat them with a piece of wood.

Then they were ordered to stand and start walking up the hill. The men saw a large group of police officers waiting farther up the hill, near the woods, and they started running because they were ordered to or out of fear that the police would kill them in the forest, different survivors said.

That’s when shots rang out from several directions, from about 100 yards away, and in the chaos of shouting and shooting, some men were killed while others escaped down narrow side streets or played dead for several hours.

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Walker’s monitors were the first people some of the shellshocked survivors saw as they walked toward the road that evening.

As U.S. ambassador to El Salvador from 1988-92, Walker discovered more than he probably cared to about civil war and massacres and the wisdom in these words: The first casualty of war is the truth.

After a week of dealing with the shock of discovering the corpses in Racak and fighting Belgrade’s campaign to discredit and then get rid of him, Walker now sounds a little less certain about what happened in Racak.

Yet he hasn’t lost the conviction that made him dispose with the usual diplomatic niceties a week ago and publicly accuse the Yugoslav security forces of mass murder.

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“The government has essentially taken credit for having killed terrorists,” Walker said in an interview Friday. “They deny it was a massacre. Well, I guess it depends on what your definition of a massacre is.

“Even if they were [Kosovo Liberation Army rebel] soldiers and captured, and [then] killed as captives, to me this rings of a massacre.”

Walker acknowledged that the credibility of his accusations is now in the hands of the Yugoslav, Belarussian and Finnish pathologists examining 40 corpses, including that of a 12-year-old boy, which Serbian police removed from Racak’s mosque.

Ethnic Albanian witnesses insist that police took other bodies away Jan. 15, before the monitors saw the remaining corpses, and they claim that the real death toll in Racak exceeded 50 victims, including a baby.

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“If the forensic evidence is weighing over to the other side and very conclusive, I would be the first to stand up and say, ‘My first conclusion was wrong, and I was wrong, maybe, to state it so strongly,’ ” Walker said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Besides interviewing survivors and photographing corpses where they lay in Racak, Walker’s monitors picked up some physical evidence from the scene, such as spent shell casings, a source said.

The monitors continue to investigate the Racak killings by searching for survivors and conducting formal interviews to compile a record of witness testimony in transcripts, he said.

The pathologists’ report is expected in just over a week, and if it doesn’t conclusively prove Walker wrong, his case against the security forces will then depend on how three piles of evidence hold up.

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The witness accounts will be measured against evidence from the monitors and the forensic report, and then all three will be stacked up against the government’s version of events, the source on Walker’s team said.


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