Yugoslav court martial reveals Serb war crime

Author: John Sweeney
Uploaded: Thursday, 26 April, 2001

In a story filed from Belgrade, John Sweeney reports on the evidence of FRY army war crimes that has been emerging from 'the unlikeliest of place - a Yugoslav court martial trying three of its own soldiers' for murdering civilians in Kosova

Evidence that the Yugoslav army deployed a unit for burning bodies and erasing any trace of Albanians murdered during the war in Kosovo has emerged from the unlikeliest of places - a Yugoslav court martial trying three of its own soldiers.

The existence of the 'trace-erasing' unit, testified by five soldier witnesses, is proof the army covered up war crimes. The disclosure comes three years after The Observer first reported evidence from refugees that bodies of massacred Albanians were burnt in furnaces in the Trepca mining complex. Forensic scientists working for the war crimes tribunal at The Hague have identified grave sites containing around 4,000 corpses, but 3,000 bodies have never been found - their traces have been erased.

One Yugoslav Special Forces paramilitary who had been at a massacre site in South-western Kosovo said: 'I saw some terrible things, but I am not going to tell you because I do not want to betray my fellow Serbs.' The court martial in Nis found two soldiers and an officer guilty of murdering an elderly Albanian couple, the critical evidence coming from four soldiers and the war diary of army reservist Nebojsa Dimitrijevic, which said 'two people were cleansed'.

During the trial, chaired by military judge Radenko Miladinovic - a Milosevic-era appointee, who was on Europe's list of banned Yugoslavs for jailing a journalist - it emerged that Dimitrijevic and other witnesses were members of the 'trace-erasing unit'. In Dimitrijevic's pre-trial statement, he said the unit in Gornja Susica, near Pristina, included 'a subdivision tasked with body removal and burning up the remains'.

The murders took place in the aftermath of the Nato attack on Yugoslavia. Reservists in War Unit 5778, based in the Serb town of Gracanica, south-east of Pristina, fled Nato bombs on 27 March 1999, after two soldiers died and seven were injured. They were ordered to occupy two Albanian villages, Saskovac and Gornja Susica, and to 'cleanse' the inhabitants. Feriz Krasniqi stood in his front garden and told the advancing soldiers that his wife, Rukija, was paralysed and unable to leave her bed. Captain Dragisa Petrovic, angered by the old Albanian's refusal to budge, ordered soldiers Nenad Stamenkovic, Tomica Jovic and Dimitrijevic to kill them. Dimitrijevic aimed his gun at Krasniqi but couldn't pull the trigger. At that moment, Jovic fired a burst and killed Krasniqi. Stamenkovic went into the house and shot the wife.

The trace-erasing unit was part of the battalion stationed in Gornja Susica, commanded by a Lt Stojiljkovic. He told the court that when he came to the village, he found Krasniqi's body and ordered two soldiers to bury it. Another three bodies were found later. Dimitrijevic was in a group of soldiers charged with burning remains. Svemir Mladenovic and Bratislav Zdravkovic said Petrovic had ordered them to dig up a carbonised body and rebury it. Jovic and Stamenkovic were sentenced to four and a half years each for the murders, and Petrovic four and a half years for abetting them. The judge said the sentences had been light so the men could 'be with their families'.

Report in The Observer, 22 April 2001

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