'Serbs killed for their organs'

A human rights watchdog said today that new evidence has emerged to warrant an investigation into claims that ethnic Albanian guerrillas in Kosovo killed Serbs and sold their organs at the end of the war in Kosovo.

Human Rights Watch said it had information that bolsters allegations of abductions and cross-border transfers from Kosovo to Albania in June 1999.

At the time, Nato and the UN were moving in to Kosovo at the end of the war between separatist rebels and Serbian forces.

The claims first appeared in a book by former UN war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, who wrote that she had been told by “credible journalists” of such an organ trafficking scheme.

Ms Del Ponte wrote that, according to the sources, Kosovo Albanians transported between 100 and 300 people – most of them Serb civilians – by truck from Kosovo to a house near the Albanian town of Burrel, about 55 miles north of the capital, Tirana.

At the house, “doctors extracted the captives’ internal organs,” Ms Del Ponte said in the recently published book, The Hunt: War Criminals and Me, according to the rights group.

Human Rights Watch said it had reviewed the inquiries conducted by the UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the UN-run justice department in Kosovo and concluded that the claims should be fully investigated.

“Serious and credible allegations have emerged about horrible abuses in Kosovo and Albania after the war,” Fred Abrahams, a senior researcher with the New York-based rights watchdog, said in a statement.

He said the governments in both Pristina and Tirana need to “show their commitment to justice and the rule of law by conducting proper investigations”.

Human Rights Watch sent a letter in April to the prime ministers of Kosovo and Albania urging them to examine the claims, but said it received no response.

The group said it viewed information obtained by the tribunal from the journalists, including statements from seven ethnic Albanians guerrillas who “gave details about participating in or witnessing the transfer of abducted Serbs and others prisoners”.

It also said it obtained a report by UN investigators in Kosovo who found an empty intravenous bag, syringes and empty bottles of medicine in a stream bed next to the house.

The UN investigators who inspected the house in 2002-2003 also found traces of blood, but were unable to determine if the blood was human and concluded the evidence was not substantial enough to support the claims.

Tribunal spokeswoman Olga Kavran said that the court had no additional comment to make beyond a statement it released April 16 to say that it had looked into the allegations but found no substantial evidence to support them.

However, she said that the tribunal has received requests for assistance or information from Serbian authorities and from the United Nations mission in Kosovo.

The UN in Kosovo was not immediately available to confirm whether it is investigating the claims.

The rights group insisted there was enough evidence to back the allegations.

“Collecting reliable evidence to launch a criminal prosecution and collecting evidence that adds weight to assertions are two different things,” Mr Abrahams said. “The evidence found near Burrel clearly adds weight to the assertions.”

Kosovo’s assembly said it would convene in the coming weeks to consider whether to sue Ms Del Ponte for allegedly “tarnishing the image” of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, according to Kosovo legislators.

Kosovo’s deputy prime minister, Hajredin Kuqi, said it was up to prosecutors to investigate the allegations, not the government.

“We are not giving the chance to somebody to put some bad image on Kosovo’s future, on Kosovo’s policies or Kosovo’s past,” Mr Kuqi said. “We have no facts, we have no data and we are not moving just because of speculation.”

Albanian Foreign Minister Lulzim Basha has called the allegations “inventions and absurdities,” but the rights group claimed Albania’s top diplomat was withholding evidence.

It said Mr Basha “personally investigated reports of detention facilities in northern Albania,” at a time when he worked for the UN-run justice department in Kosovo, before beginning a political career.

Hundreds of Serbs and ethnic Albanians are still missing from Kosovo’s 1998-99 war.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on February 17. Its split has been recognised by the US and the bulk of nations in the European Union. Serbia and its ally Russia oppose Kosovo’s statehood.

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