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Witness Blames NATO for Kosovo Exodus

Serbian official claims Albanians fled Kosovo due to NATO bombing, but admits Serb forces committed crimes there.
A Serbian official this week told the war crimes trial of some of the country’s former leaders that NATO bombing, not the army, forced Albanians to flee Kosovo.

According to Dusan Gavranic, a former chief of the Secretariat of the Interior, SUP, in the eastern Kosovo municipality of Gnjilane, the bombing campaign was the main reason why civilians fled their villages near the town in 1999.

“The reasons were always the same. They were afraid of the bombing because the bombing was incessant…When residents noticed that the army was moving in the vicinity of their village they would leave because they knew the army was the target,” Gavranic told the tribunal.

Gavranic was giving evidence in defence of the former head of Kosovo police, Lieutenant General Sreten Lukic, who faces charges of committing war crimes as one of the “Kosovo Six” defendants, who include former Serbian prime minister Milan Milutinovic; former Yugoslav deputy prime minister Nikola Sainovic; ex-chief of staff of the Yugoslav army Dragoljub Ojdanic; and ex-Yugoslav army commanders Nebojsa Pavkovic and Vladimir Lazarevic.

They are accused of orchestrating the killing of hundreds of Kosovo Albanians as well as the forced deportation of 800,000 people from the region during 1998 and 1999.

The indictment against Lukic alleges that as chief of staff for the Serbian ministry of internal affairs in Kosovo, MUP, he “promoted, instigated, facilitated, encouraged and/or condoned the perpetration of crimes” between May 1998 and June 1999.

Gavranic described to the court how residents abandoned the village of Prilepnica near Gnjilane in April 1999.

The prosecution alleges that Serbian forces “entered the town of Prilepnica on or about 6 April 1999, and ordered residents to leave. The townspeople left and tried to go to another village but forces of the FRY [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] and Serbia turned them back”.

But Gavranic said that this was not the case, telling the court he did not find anyone who had ordered people to leave.

“Talking to the officers… I wasn’t able to establish that anyone had told these residents to move out,” he told the court.

“We did not have any information indicating that anybody who we had managed to contact in the army of Yugoslavia had ordered them or told them anything of this nature.”

Gavranic went on to explain how, having been sent back, the residents were on the move again a week later, driven out by NATO bombing. According to the witness, the villagers fled towards Macedonia as part of a huge column of people.

The timeframe of the successive flights from the village of Prilepnica described by Gavranic matched that of the indictment, but the root cause of them did not.

In his cross-examination, the prosecutor challenged Gavranic on his assertion that the Serb officials had not ordered the evacuation. The prosecutor cited contradictory evidence from the village imam, Abdulhaqim Shaqiri, who testified as a prosecution witness in September 2006. But Gavranic said he had made thorough checks.

“I told you we could not establish who it was who had given them such an order… All of the consultations we conducted then on 6th [April] when they returned indicated that none of the officers in the army whom I knew had any idea who could have done that,” he said.

Gavranic then described how civilians from other villages in the region also fled during April 1999. According to him, residents of the village of Srebnice started heading towards the Albanian-dominated area of Vranje on April 6 when fire engulfed the entire village.

According to the indictment, “throughout the entire municipality of Gnjlane forces of the FRY and Serbia systematically burned and destroyed houses, shops, cultural monuments and religious sites belonging to Kosovo Albanians”.

But when asked what caused the fire that forced residents to leave the village, Gavranic replied, “The bombing, the bombing did, the forest was on fire.”

While insistent that it was the NATO bombing and not acts of arson or demands for evacuation that led villagers to leave, the witness did tell the court about 184 crimes - including murder, robbery and arson - committed by Serbian forces in the area under his control during this period.

He said that these crimes were investigated “as all regular [police] work continued” and that the legal three-day detention limit during investigations was extended to 30 days.

Gavranic then testified as to the conscientiousness of the police in the region at the time. Worried that the refugees would be attacked by members of the Kosovo Liberation Army on their way to the Macedonian border, he said he organised a patrol of three or four policemen to lead the column.

“When people saw that police were there, nobody attacked,” he said.

However, the imam, Shaqiri, testified that he was attacked as the column made its way to the border. When asked by the judge to clarify the positioning of the policemen, Gavranic confirmed they were only at the head of the column which contained “several thousand” people.

The defence counsel for Sainovic then put some questions to the witness. Sainovic was deputy prime minister of Yugoslavia at this time and faces charges of participating in a joint criminal enterprise, which included exercising authority over the interior ministry. Prosecutors alleged that he enlisted volunteers “with a history of allegations of involvement in serious crimes against civilians in other conflicts, including in Kosovo in 1998”.

Asked by the defence counsel if Sainovic asked him for reports or if the Yugoslavian government had any power over the Serbian interior ministry, the witness denied this was the case. He also denied seeing any sort of document ordering joint command during 1999 in Kosovo.

“I…. never saw a single document that had that kind of heading, joint command or anything like that,” he said.

Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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