|Figures put on Serb killings too high
Special report: Kosovo
Jonathan Steele Friday August 18, 2000
Nato officials conceded last night that their wartime
estimates of the number of Kosovo Albanian civilians massacred by
Serb forces might have been too high. They were reacting to
findings by forensic experts for the International Criminal
Tribunal in the Hague who are preparing to complete their work in
Kosovo after exhuming about 3,000 bodies.
Not all of the dead can be proved to be victims of murder or
The war crimes teams have dug up 680 corpses this year at 150
sites. Added to the 2,108 found last year, the total is well
below the murder estimates, ranging from 10,000 to 100,000, made
during the war. Paul Risley, the Hague tribunal's press
spokesman, said yesterday: "The final number of bodies uncovered
will be less than 10,000 and probably more accurately determined
as between two and three thousand."
Nato's intervention against Yugoslavia was prompted by massive
Serb offensives against Albanian villages in Kosovo, which caused
hundreds of thousands of civilians to hide in forests or flee
across the border. There were frequent killings of unarmed
During the Nato airstrikes, when the Serbs restricted access
to Kosovo, there was no way to verify atrocity reports. But Nato
officials talked of 100,000 missing men and said at least 10,000
had been killed. Mark Laity, the acting Nato spokesman, said last
night: "Nato never said the missing were all dead. The figure we
stood by was 10,000. If it's wrong, I'm prepared to put up with a
little bit of egg on our face if thousands are alive who were
thought to be killed.
He added: "Nato is always going to lose. If there were 100,000
dead we would be criticised for entering Kosovo late. If it's a
few thousand, we're criticised because people say there wasn't a crisis."
Serb killings 'exaggerated' by west
Claims of up to 100,000 ethnic Albanians massacred in Kosovo revised to under 3,000 as exhumations near end
Special report: Kosovo
Jonathan Steele Friday August 18, 2000
The final toll of civilians confirmed massacred by Yugoslav
forces in Kosovo is likely to be under 3,000, far short of the
numbers claimed by Nato governments during last year's
controversial air strikes on Yugoslavia.
As war crimes experts from Britain and other countries prepare
to wind down the exhumation of hundreds of graves in Kosovo on
behalf of the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the former
Yugoslavia in the Hague, officials concede they have not borne
out the worst wartime reports. These were given by refugees and
repeated by western government spokesmen during the campaign.
They talked of indiscriminate killings and as many as 100,000
civilians missing or taken out of refugee columns by the Serbs.
The fact that far fewer Kosovo Albanians were massacred than
suggested by Nato will raise sharp questions about the
organisation's handling of the media and its information
However, commentators yesterday stressed that the new details
should not obscure the fact that the major war crime in the
tribunal's indictment of the Yugoslav president, Slobodan
Milosevic, and four other Serb officials is the ethnic cleansing
of Kosovo and forced deportation of hundreds of thousands of
"The point is did we successfully pre-empt or not," Mark
Laity, the acting Nato spokesman, said last night. "I think the
evidence shows we did. We would rather be criticised for
overestimating the numbers who died than for failing to pre-empt.
Any objective analysis would say there was a clear crisis. There
was indiscriminate killing. There were attempts to clear hundreds
of thousands of people out of their homes."
When Yugoslav forces withdrew from Kosovo in June last year,
Nato spokesmen estimated that the Serbs had killed at least
10,000 civilians. While the bombing was under way William Cohen,
the US defence secretary, announced that 100,000 Kosovo Albanian
men of military age were missing after being taken from columns
of families being deported to Albania and Macedonia. "They may
have been murdered," he said. The fear was they might share the
fate of the men who were separated from their wives and children
and executed when Serb forces overran the town of Srebrenica in
But while some 7,000 Bosnian Muslims died in the week-long
Srebrenica massacre in 1995, less than 3,000 Kosovo Albanian
murder victims have been discovered in the whole of Kosovo. "The
final number of bodies uncovered will be less than 10,000 and
probably more accurately determined as between two and three
thousand," Paul Risley, the Hague tribunal's press spokesman,
In three months of digging this summer, the tribunal's
international forensic experts found 680 bodies at 150 sites.
This was in addition to the 2,108 bodies found at 195 sites last
year before exhumations were called off because of winter frosts.
"By October we expect to have enough evidence to end the
exhumations by foreign teams, and they will not be necessary next
year," Mr Risley added.
Although the tribunal has received reports of another 350
suspected grave sites, it believes the cost and effort of
uncovering them would not be justified. Some suspicious mounds or
patches of rough earth in fields where villagers reported a foul
stench turned out to contain dead animals or to be empty.
When the tribunal's teams reached Kosovo last summer, shortly
after the international peacekeepers, they were given reports of
11,334 people in mass graves, but the results of its exhumations
fall well short of that number. In a few cases, such as the
Trepca mine where hundreds of bodies were alleged to have been
flung down shafts or incinerated, they found nothing at all.
The tribunal's indictment of President Milosevic includes the
charge that during Nato's bombing campaign Serb police shot 105
ethnic Albanian men and boys near the village of Mala Krusa in
western Kosovo. Witnesses claimed hay was piled on the bodies and
set alight. Tribunal experts believe the remains may have been
tampered with later, since the bones of only a few people were
The exhumation of less than 3,000 bodies is sure to add fuel
to those who say Nato's intervention against Yugoslavia was not
"humanitarian" and that it had other motives such as maintaining
its credibility in a post-cold war world. Others say Nato's air
strikes revealed a grotesque double standard since western
governments did nothing when hundreds of thousands were being
massacred in Rwanda.
Carla del Ponte, the tribunal's chief prosecutor, told the UN
security council: "Our task is not to prepare a complete list of
war casualties. Our primary task is to gather evidence relevant
to criminal charges."
Evidence of the forced deportation of hundreds of thousands of
people was overwhelming before the tribunal gained access to
Kosovo but the exhumations are aimed at finding evidence for the
charges of mass murder.
"Their benefit is to link forensic evidence to particular
units of the police and army operating in particular parts of
Kosovo. It wasn't a case of rogue units. The Serbian police state
was fully involved," Mr Risley said. But officials will not say
how many of the 2,788 bodies exhumed show clear signs of being
victims of summary execution such as being shot in the head from
No Nato government has sought to produce a definitive total of
murdered ethnic Albanian civilians since the Serb offensives
began in March 1998, a year before the bombing. "No one is
interested," complained a senior international official in Kosovo
involved in helping victims' families. "Nato doesn't want to
admit the damage wasn't as extensive as it said. Local Albanian
politicians have the same motive. If you don't have the true
figure, you can exploit the issue."