The Crimes of Ljuboten

Investigations by international and local human rights groups have confirmed that Albanian villagers were beaten and killed - and found no evidence that they were combatants.

The Crimes of Ljuboten

Investigations by international and local human rights groups have confirmed that Albanian villagers were beaten and killed - and found no evidence that they were combatants.

The history of the Balkan wars is littered with the names of villages that fell victim to atrocities. As the negotiating process in Macedonia continued throughout August, bloody battles between security forces and Albanian rebels resulted in numerous casualties. But one battle, in the village of Ljuboten, may soon be added to the chronicle of war crimes.

As fighting spiralled on the morning of August 12 around the small village, 10 kilometres north of the capital, frightened ethnic Albanian villagers tried to flee. But they were prevented by a blockade on the road set up by Macedonian inhabitants from the neighbouring village of Ljubanci.

International press reports have already focused on five ethnic Albanian men found dead in the aftermath of the fighting. Local Albanians claim they were shot in the back as they tried to flee the police. The Macedonian Ministry of the Interior described the dead as "terrorists", suggesting that they were active members of the rebel National Liberation Army.

But further investigations by local and international human rights researchers have confirmed that Albanians were beaten and killed, and found no evidence to suggest that they were combatants fighting with the rebel army.

Unable to escape by road, the villagers of Ljuboten facing the blockade tried to run through the fields, where they were met by a police patrol. As a result of this encounter, around 150 ethnic Albanians were injured. Between 40 and 50 people were then taken to police stations in Skopje and severely beaten, according to Mirjana Najcevska, president of the Macedonian Helsinki Committee.

Most of these people have been located in police detention, alive but bearing clear signs of severe beatings, according to relatives. A mother interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that the face of her 13-year-old son, who had been detained, was bruised and swollen when she went to visit him in prison. Many were subsequently released. But 27 of them have been charged with terrorism, based only on evidence of gunpowder particles allegedly found on their palms.

At least one of those detained, however, died from head injuries. Six days later, relatives of 35-year-old Atulah Qaini, a Ljuboten villager who had been missing, found his body at the morgue in Skopje. Qaini, who had last been seen in police custody in the village, bore clear signs of severe beating, and researchers with Human Rights Watch, in their own inspection, found that his skull had been cracked..

"The Ljuboten villagers are calling for the exhumation of those killed on August 12," said Najcevska. "They stick to their claims that there was a massacre, and they demand that representatives of the war crimes tribunal in The Hague investigative this entire case." Some reports put the death toll in the village that day up to nine.

The Hague prosecutor's office declines to comment specifically on Ljuboten. But a spokesperson, Florence Hartmann, confirmed that Macedonia falls under the jurisdiction of the court and the prosecutor is collecting information. "There is no formal investigation into the incident but simply a preliminary inquiry to see if crimes under the ICTY mandate were committed," she said. Sources in Skopje, however, suggest that an investigation is already under way.

Survivors of Ljuboten point in particular to the role of Minister of Interior Ljube Boskovski. The events occurred at a particularly tense time in the area. Just as negotiations were reaching a critical stage, on August 10, eight Macedonian soldiers were killed by an anti-tank mine on the road near the village.

The villagers claim that at that point they received a crucial commitment from the Macedonian police. According interviews conducted by the Macedonian Helsinki Committee, they say that officers assured them that those who did not participate in planting the mine had nothing to worry about, and that the village would not be shelled.

But on the morning of the fighting, a Sunday, the Macedonian media published reports alleging that the police station on the road between Ljuboten and Skopje had been attacked. The Macedonian army, seizing on the alleged incident, responded by firing on the village with helicopters and heavy artillery.

Villagers said an elderly man and a 6-year-old girl were killed in these attacks. But the worst was still to come.

After the shelling, members of the police reserve entered the village. These officers, according to statements given by residents to the Helsinki Committee, were mainly inhabitants of the predominantly ethnic Macedonian villages surrounding Ljuboten. According to the villagers, the reservists "executed" six people, shooting them either in the head or the back. Albanians claims that one man was stabbed in front of his paralysed father. Western reporters visiting the scene a few days later confirmed at least five dead, with back and head wounds.

Following a separate investigation, Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch has concluded, "There is no evidence that any of those who were killed carried a uniform or any emblem of the so-called NLA." Human Rights Watch is to preparing to publishing its own detailed report shortly.

Yet Skopje officials continue to reject any allegation of maltreatment of civilians at Ljuboten. Macedonian interior minister Ljube Boskovski, who is responsible for the police, has been accused of personally leading the operation of the reservists in the village. But he denies any crimes against civilians.

"At the village there was fighting for two days," he told IWPR. An Orthodox church was attacked and Christian (i.e. Macedonian) graves were desecrated. "The Macedonian police entered when everything was over, so it was impossible for the police to kill any inhabitants."

He blames fighting within the village on the ethnic Albanians themselves. "We found that the Albanians were fighting among each other," he said. The minister insisted that video footage exists showing "terrorists" killing civilians who refused to join the NLA and instead sought to flee to the capital.

Regarding accusations that he personally participated in atrocities, Boskovski threatened to "bring charges before the human rights court in Strasbourg against idiots who spread this kind of disinformation."

Such denials have not convinced international observers.

"Persistent police abuse in Macedonia is simply shocking," said Elisabeth Andersen, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, in a press release on the Ljuboten case. "Macedonia must urgently address the violence in the police stations. Ethnic Albanians are being severely abused, and in some cases beaten to death, without slightest prospect of accountability," she said.

Yet such strong words have gained no coverage within the constituency that matters. While Albanian-language media tend to exaggerate every legitimate military action as an atrocity, most of their Macedonian counterparts have failed to consider any possible human rights abuses as Ljuboten. They report extensively and in great detail when Macedonians are ethnically cleansed, tortured, kidnapped, raped or killed by Albanian "terrorists". But they show no interest in case when Albanians are subject to human rights violations.

Vladimir Jovanovski is a journalist at Forum magazine in Skopje.

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