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Witness Says Kosovo Massacre Unplanned

Serb interior ministry and paramilitaries responsible for Meja deaths, says prosecution witness.
By Caroline Tosh
A prosecution witness told the trial of six Serbian and military officials charged with war crimes in Kosovo that the Yugoslav military did not intend to kill hundreds of people during their 1999 operation in the village of Meja.

Meja features in the indictment against former Serbian president Milan Milutinovic, former deputy prime minister of Yugoslavia Nikola Sainovic, former chief of staff Dragoljub Ojdanic, and police and army generals Sreten Lukic, Nebojsa Pavkovic and Vladimir Lazarevic.

They are all charged in connection with crimes allegedly committed in Kosovo in 1999 by forces under their command.

Among other allegations, the indictment says that Kosovo Albanian men from Meja were separated from a mass of fleeing villagers and summarily executed. Survivors are said to have been forced to join convoys crossing into Albania.

Prosecution witness Nik Peraj, a former Yugoslav army,VJ, captain said Operation Meja was run by territorial and civil defence troops and paramilitaries acting together with Serbian interior ministry, MUP, forces.

But he insists the April 27 operation went wrong and the deaths of more than 300 ethnic Albanians were unplanned.

“I don’t think it was the army’s purpose for so many people to be killed,” said Peraj. “The army was misused by the MUP and paramilitary forces [during the campaign in the Djakovica municipality],” he added.

However, the lawyer for Sreten Lukic, the head of the MUP at the time, denied claims by Peraj that the interior ministry was behind the massacre.

“The territorial defence, the civil defence and the paramilitaries are not part of the ministry of the interior, and the ministry of the interior of Serbia cannot control in any way any one of these organisations,” said Branko Lukic.

Peraj testified it was the paramilitary groups that “committed the worst crimes in Djakovica” including burning houses, looting and rape. He denied these groups were acting under the control of the Yugoslav army. “Rape was not a policy or part of any kind of plan,” he said.

Peraj, a captain in the Djakovica artillery and rocket brigade of the VJ at the time of the attack, said that he thought the aim of the operation was the expulsion of the population. “If they hadn’t have burnt down houses, I would have thought that the population was being expelled on a temporary basis,” he said.

Tomislav Visnjic, Ojdanic’s lawyer, said the operation was launched as part of a broader campaign to defend the border from an attack by the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA. Ojdanic was chief of the general staff of the VJ at the time.

Peraj, who also testified in 2002 at the trial of late Slobodan Milosevic, this week directly implicated General Vladimir Lazarevic, saying he was in command of Operation Meja.

Peraj also claimed to have seen army major Zdravko Vinter compile a report after the massacre in Meja and Korenica, which he was to send to the VJ Pristina Corps. "I saw him explicitly writing that on April 27, in the region of Meja, 68 terrorists were liquidated, while in Korenica 74 terrorists were liquidated. This is what he wrote,” said Peraj

Lazarevic’s lawyer Mihailo Bakrac asked Peraj why he had not said until this week that the general had been in command of this operation.

Peraj replied at first that he had never been asked who was in command. He then changed his story and went on to claim that he previously mentioned it to an Office of The Prosecutor representative.

The defence went on to argue that on April 27 and 28, Lazarevic was not in Djakovica, but in Pristina where he had been celebrating a national holiday.

Bakrac tried to undermine Peraj’s credibility by asking him about an incident in which he apparently leaked information to the KLA about a planned VJ ambush. Peraj confirmed that he passed on this information to the KLA through his brother in law.

The trial continues next week.

Caroline Tosh is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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