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Kosovo villages show signs of mass killings

HALLAC, Yugoslavia -- After weeks of unconfirmed reports from terrified refugees, the first direct evidence that Serb forces carried out mass killings in Kosovo -- and have tried to cover them up -- emerged Sunday at this village, where freshly turned dirt lay just feet from a bullet-pocked wall.

A month ago, ethnic Albanian refugees who fled the village reported that Serb paramilitaries had killed 46 people during a two-day rampage in mid-April here and in a nearby hamlet, called Ribar.The signs of recent digging here, along with 26 new graves in the local cemetery at Ribar, may mean that a mass grave was excavated and the bodies reburied. Two dozen burned houses in the area also stand as evidence of some form of attack.

Benjamin Ward, an investigator with Human Rights Watch who has been collecting witness accounts of the attacks in the area, said the graves support accounts he has heard of the rampage.

"It represents one of the first direct confirmations of witness statements describing the killings of civilians," he said. "Now we have the first evidence confirming that it has happened."

Residents of Hallac said that in recent weeks local police exhumed a mass grave holding 20 men, carried out autopsies on the victims and then ordered local villagers to rebury the bodies in individual graves in the local cemetery.

In nearby Ribar, the victims were exhumed from 26 individual graves, examined and then reburied.

Reburying bodies in individual graves and producing autopsies giving an explanation for the killings could make it more difficult to prove in court that people were executed instead of killed in fighting.

In Hallac and Ribar, the evidence of killing was strikingly different. In Hallac, a 10-by-30-foot patch of freshly turned earth in an empty lot near the village center was by far the most dramatic evidence; villagers said it once held the bodies of 20 people killed by Serb paramilitaries.

Villagers, who gave accounts mirroring those given by refugees last month, said the Hallac killings occurred on April 19. A dozen Serb paramilitaries shot dead 11 men in the vacant lot, they said, including a 23-year-old father of two who was shot in the face after he repeatedly asked to be released.

Nine other men were killed in their homes, the villagers said. Hafize Gashi, 19, gave a painstaking tour of the killing ground around her home. Her father, she said, was killed in the garden; one uncle was shot beside the well, another in front of his adjacent home; and her 26-year-old cousin and a 70-year-old uncle were killed inside her home. The paramilitaries then set the bodies on fire, she said.

Standing in the charred remains of the family's living room, she pointed out what appeared to be a charred human knee joint lying on the floor. "We tried to gather all of the bones for burial," she said.

The paramilitaries forced local gypsies to bury all 20 corpses, villagers said. Police from Lipljan then arrived on May 2 and ordered the graves exhumed. Blaming the killings on paramilitaries they could not control, the police said the victims should be buried properly.

A few miles up the road in the village of Ribar, 26 freshly made graves could be seen in the community cemetery. The victims there included men, women, children and the elderly, according to the grave markers. The village's oldest and youngest victims died together, residents said, when paramilitaries shot a 7-year-old girl and her 73-year-old grandfather as they ran across a field to escape.