Investigating the case of hundreds of Serbs who disappeared in Kosovo in 1998-99; BALKANS: 'Serbs Organs Sold From Albania'
IPS (Latin America) - April 1, 2008 Tuesday

By: Vesna Peric Zimonjic

Serbia's War Crimes Prosecution Office has formally opened an investigation into the case of hundreds of Serbs who disappeared in Kosovo in 1998-99. The investigations were ordered after excerpts from a book by former chief international war crimes tribunal prosecutor Carla Del Ponte were published in local media.

Independent Beta news agency carried excerpts from Del Ponte's book, 'Hunt, Me and War Criminals', in which she says that in the course of her investigations she learned that some 300 Serbs were abducted and killed for organ trafficking in 1999. The abductions were allegedly the work of Kosovo Albanians.

'We are checking the informal information that two trucks with imprisoned Serbs from Kosovo went to Albania in 1999,' Serbia's War Crimes Prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic told reporters at a press conference last week where he confirmed the opening of an investigation.

'The informal information on that transfer and the possibility that the imprisoned people were killed so that their organs could be sold to international traffickers came from The Hague tribunal prosecutors,' he added.

For nine years until this January, Carla Del Ponte was chief prosecutor of The Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) founded by the United Nations in the 1990s. In the course of her term she prosecuted dozens of high profile cases arising from the wars that took more than 100,000 lives.

One of the most important tasks was the prosecution of war crimes by Serb security forces against Kosovo Albanians in 1998-99. More than 5,000 ethnic Albanians and 1,300 Serbs are still missing from that war, which erupted when ethnic Albanian separatists launched a rebellion against Belgrade's rule.

The violent response of Serbia to the rebellion triggered attacks by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in 1999, which forced Belgrade to end the crackdown and withdraw its troops. Kosovo has been run by the UN and NATO since 1999. It declared independence from Serbia last month.

According to excerpts from Del Ponte's book, that is to hit the bookshops Apr. 3, her team of investigators had been informed that some 300 Serbs were killed for organ trafficking after being transferred from Kosovo to the small town Burrel, 91 kilometres north of Albanian capital Tirana.

A room in a 'yellow house' outside the town was used as the operation theatre. Organs were extracted from young people there, taken to Tirana airport, and trafficked abroad. Those people were later killed and secretly buried, according to information she cites.

Del Ponte says her team found the house in Burrel in 2003, following leads by 'reliable journalists' and by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) administration.

But despite finding traces of blood in the house which had been re-painted white in the meantime, as well as remains of old, used medical material (gauze, a used syringe, two plastic infusion bags hardened in mud, empty drug bottles, among them of drugs used for muscle relaxation), 'we decided the evidence was not enough. Without bodies or firm evidence that would link any suspects with the crimes, all the possibilities for further investigation for the tribunal's prosecution were closed,' Del Ponte wrote.

'It is devastating for us now to read about this,' head of the Alliance of Families of Serbs Disappeared in Kosovo, Simo Spasic, told IPS. The alliance represents families of the 1,300 Kosovo Serbs whose fate is still unknown since 1998-99.

'On one side, it kills all our hopes to learn what happened to our dearest; on the other hand, why did she wait so long to speak about this particular issue?'

According to Spasic, he met with Del Ponte and her team of investigators in 2001 to plead the Alliance's case. In 2004, he received a call from the Prosecutor's office with information that 'all people you are looking for are dead'.

'It was as simple as that, but we remain in limbo,' Spasic says. 'We have no clear proof that all the missing are dead, no bodies or body parts that would prove it?what causes much pain to families is the fact that only now, in the book, she (Del Ponte) speaks about learning of torture and killing of Serbs, and of organ harvesting. Our last hope to learn about the fate of the missing has been taken from our hands now.'

In Kosovo capital Pristina, former ethnic Albanian rebels and their groups refuse to accept any such suggestions by Carla Del Ponte. The former ICTY chief prosecutor was not available for comment to Serbian media. She is now Swiss ambassador to Argentina.

The Serbian war crimes prosecutor's spokesman Bruno Vekaric says the case of abductions and killings of Serbs has another dimension.

'The issues mentioned in Del Ponte's book do not simply deal with war crimes,' Vekaric told Belgrade B92 Radio. 'If her allegations on organ harvesting and trafficking are true, this is a case of organised crime which is transnational and knows no borders. This would be a case for major international action.'

In the case of the alleged abduction of Kosovo Serbs, their transfer to Albania and related crimes, 'there is a long road from indications to evidence,' he said. 'The research we are to undertake is going to last for very, very long.'

The investigation, he said, should be free of political overtones. Vekaric was referring to outrage that the publishing of excerpts from Del Ponte's book caused among Serbs in Kosovo. In one of their protest rallies this week, they called on Belgrade to cut diplomatic ties with Albania.

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