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Račak incident

The Račak incident of 15 January 1999 (sometimes called the Račak killings or Račak massacre; Serbian: Масакр у Рачку / Masakr u Račku) was one of the bloodiest single episodes in the events that led up to the Kosovo War. 40 to 45 Kosovo Albanians were killed in the village of Račak (Reçak in Albanian) in central Kosovo. The government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia asserted that the casualties were all members of the Kosovo Liberation Army who had been killed in a clash with state security forces. The international community did not accept this explanation, characterising the killings as a deliberate massacre of civilians by Yugoslav forces.

The killings later featured among the war crimes charges for which the Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević was eventually indicted and put on trial by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. It is the only incident prior to the NATO intervention for which war crimes indictments have been issued.

Background

Račak is a small Albanian-inhabited village in the Štimlje municipality of southern Kosovo. By 1998 it had become the scene of activity by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA, or UÇK after its Albanian name). It had a population of around 2,000 people prior to the displacement of most of its inhabitants during Yugoslav and Serbian military activity in the summer of 1998. By January 1999, around 350 people were reported by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to be living in the village. The KLA was highly active in the region and almost certainly had a presence in Račak itself, with a base near a local power plant.

During the year, UÇK conducted a number of illegal actions in the area, including:

  • July 7: kidnapping of Ademi Agim, Veselj Ahmeti and Šućeri Zurberi from Gornje Godance,
  • July 1-2: kidnapping of Maksuti Đeljaj and Hajrizi Smajilj, who worked as guards in a company in Štimlje,
  • July 13-14: kidnapping of Fazliju Fazli and Musliju Gafur who worked as guards in a company in Orlance near Uroševac,
  • September 4: kidnapping of Šabani Naim from the village of Davidovce (managed to escape),
  • October 14: kidnapping and torture of Ramadani Haljilj from Račak (released after three days),
  • November 10: kidnapping of and torture Ćoroli Arif from the village of Rašica (released after 11 days),
  • November 11: kidnapping of Murtezi Sami from Štimlje,
  • November 18: torching down the house of Džemailj Bitići in Račak,
  • December 12: kidnapping of Redžaj Rasim from Petrovo (released after eight days),
  • December 15: kidnapping of Ibiša Ćari from Štimlje (released after 11 days)
  • December 27: kidnapping of Fehmi Ćeladini from Račak.

On January 8 and January 10, the KLA mounted attacks on Serbian police in the neighboring municipalities of Suva Reka and Uroševac, killing four Serbian policemen. In response, Yugoslav and Serbian security forces established a security cordon in the immediate area of the attacks and around Račak and its neighboring communities.

On January 15, reports were received by the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM), an unarmed observer force from the OSCE, of civilians being killed in Račak. KVM monitors attempted to gain access to the area but were refused permission by security forces despite strong protests. Instead, they watched the fighting from a nearby hill. They later gained access to the village, where they found one dead man and a number of injured people and received reports of other deaths and of people being taken away by the Yugoslav security forces. They were denied permission to interview the villagers or explore the area around the village.

The monitors finally gained access to the surrounding area on January 16. Accompanied by a number of foreign journalists and members of the European Union's Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission (KDOM), they found a total of 40 bodies in and around the village. Another five bodies had allegedly been removed by family members. In all, 45 were reported killed, including a 12-year-old boy and three women. All had been shot and the KVM team reported that it found several bodies decapitated. KVM head William Walker later described what he had seen:

"In a gully above the village, I saw the first body. It was covered with a blanket, and when it was pulled back, 1 saw there was no head on the corpse — just an incredibly bloody mess on the neck. Someone told me that the skull was on the other side of the gully and asked if I wanted to see that. But I said, "No, I've pretty much got this story." [Three more bodies were found.] They looked like older men, with gray hair or white hair ... They had wounds on their heads, and there was blood on their clothes. [Then a larger group of bodies.] I didn't count them. I just looked and saw a lot of holes in the head - in the top of the head and the back of the head. A couple had what appeared to be bullet wounds knocking out their eyes. I was told there were other bodies further up and over the crest of the hill, and I was asked by journalists and inspectors if I was going to go up and see the rest. I said, 'I've seen enough.'

Walker immediately condemned what he labelled "an unspeakable atrocity" which was "a crime very much against humanity". He told the party of journalists accompanying him: "I do not hesitate to accuse the (Yugoslav) government security forces. We want to know who gave the orders, and who carried them out. I will insist that justice will be done. They certainly didn't deserve to die in circumstances like this."

The Serbian President, Milan Milutinović, accused the KVM head William Walker of fabricating the killings "by securing the co-operation of his proteges in the Kosovo Liberation Army". The Serbian media took a similar line, arguing that the Albanians had removed the KLA uniforms from the bodies and replaced them with civilian clothes.

The journalists also provided first-hand accounts of the discovery of the bodies. One of them, the BBC's reporter Jacky Rowland, reported that the dead "were all ordinary men; farmers, labourers, villagers. They had all been shot in the head. The dead were aged from 14 to 99 years old. ITN's correspondent Bill Neely was also present and described how other KVM monitors reacted at the scene: "A Swedish monitor notes that the dead are all in civilian clothes and unarmed and that there are no signs of a battle... After working for two hours one monitor, a London police officer, tells me he believes many of the victims have been shot at close range.

Two days later, on January 18, the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Louise Arbour, attempted to enter Kosovo to investigate the killings but was refused access by the Yugoslav authorities. On the same day, heavily armed Serbian police entered Račak under fire from the KLA, and removed the bodies, taking them to a morgue in Priština to await a forensic examination.

A joint Yugoslav-Belarusian team of pathologists conducted post-mortems at the end of January. A Finnish forensic team working for the European Union subsequently conducted a second post-mortem, which was more detailed but less contemporaneous than the first. The bodies were finally released to the families and buried on 10 February.

Investigations

The killings at Račak became the focus of an investigation by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. In its indictment of Slobodan Milošević and four other senior Yugoslav and Serbian officials, the ICTY's Chief Prosecutor stated that:

"On or about 15 January 1999, in the early morning hours, the village of Račak was attacked by forces of the FRY [Yugoslavia] and Serbia. After shelling by VJ [Yugoslav Army] units, the Serbian police entered the village later in the morning and began conducting house-to-house searches. Villagers, who attempted to flee from the Serb police, were shot throughout the village. A group of approximately 25 men attempted to hide in a building, but were discovered by the Serb police. They were beaten and then were removed to a nearby hill, where the policemen shot and killed them.

Eyewitness reports from the surviving villagers unanimously supported the account of a massacre. The British journalist Julius Strauss, writing for the Daily Telegraph, described how he had "spent more than a week collecting evidence on the Račak massacre from Albanian witnesses, Western monitors and diplomats and a few Serb sources who spoke privately and at some risk. According to the survivors that he interviewed, "a small group of men dressed all in black and wearing gloves and balaclavas ... co-ordinated the attack on the village and the subsequent executions." Men had been separated from women and children before being led away to be executed. One survivor told him that "some of the Serbs were in blue, some in black. The men in black appeared to be in control and wore balaclavas over their heads. Some had uniforms with insignia which included a Serbian flag; some had none. They carried automatic guns and, as we were led up the hill, both units started shooting us." Strauss speculated that the men had been from the Specijalna Antiterroristicka Jedinica, the Serbian Interior Ministry's elite anti-terrorist unit. Some eyewitnesses told reporters that "Serb troops shot and mutilated their victims, and the six-hour orgy of violence ended with a nationalist song."

The Yugoslav and Serbian governments rejected this version of events. On the day after the killings, the Serbian Interior Ministry issued a statement asserting that its police units had come under fire from "ethnic Albanian terrorist groups ... on routes leading to Račak village in the Stimlje municipality." In the subsequent counter-attack "several dozen terrorists were killed in the clashes with the police. Most of them were in uniforms bearing the insignia of the ethnic Albanian terrorist organization calling itself the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)."

They received some support from the French newspapers Le Figaro and Le Monde, which suggested that the KLA could have fabricated evidence. A film crew working for the Associated Press accompanied the Yugoslav forces in Račak for part of 15 January. Two French journalists from the Agence France Press and Le Figaro interviewed the cameramen and saw at least some of the footage, from which they concluded that it was possible that the KLA could have staged the massacre, and that "only a credible international inquiry would make it possible to resolve those doubts." According to the paper,

"It was in fact an empty village that the police entered in the morning, sticking close to the walls. The shooting was intense, as they were fired on from KLA trenches dug into the hillside. The fighting intensified sharply on the hilltops above the village. Watching from below, next to the mosque, the AP journalists understood that the KLA guerrillas, encircled, were trying desperately to break out. A score of them in fact succeeded, as the police themselves admitted.

Another French journalist writing for Le Monde, Christophe Chatelot, gave an account from the perspective of the two AP journalists:

"When at 10 a.m. they entered the village in the wake of a police armored vehicle, the village was nearly deserted. They advanced through the streets under the fire of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) fighters lying in ambush in the woods above the village. The exchange of fire continued throughout the operation, with more or less intensity. The main fighting took place in the woods. The Albanians who had fled the village when the first Serb shells were fired at dawn tried to escape. There they ran into Serbian police who had surrounded the village. The UCK was trapped in between. The object of the violent police attack on Friday was a stronghold of UCK Albanian independence fighters. Virtually all the inhabitants had fled Račak during the frightful Serb offensive of the summer of 1998. With few exceptions, they had not come back. 'Smoke came from only two chimneys,' noted one of the two AP TV reporters.

Unnamed French diplomats also criticised William Walker for publicly blaming the Serbs for the killings, arguing that he should have waited for a more thorough investigation. Walker was also attacked by the Serbian media for his role as a US diplomat in Central America in the 1980s, at a time when the involvement of the US in a number of civil and political conflicts in the region was a subject of major controversy.

At the end of January 1999, the United States was reported to have leaked telephone intercepts that were said to prove the role of the Yugoslav government in the killings. According to the Washington Post, the intercepts showed that the Yugoslav government had ordered security forces to "go in hard" to the Račak area to find and kill the KLA guerrillas responsible for earlier attacks on the Serbian police. Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Šainović and Interior Ministry General Sreten Lukić reportedly expressed concern about reaction to the Račak assault and discussed how to make the killings at Račak appear to be the result of combat between government troops and KLA rebels. On the day of the attack on Račak, Sainović was aware that the assault was underway and asked how many people had been killed. Lukić replied that as of that moment the tally stood at 22. Following the international uproar about the killings, Sainović told Lukić to re-enter Račak and retrieve the bodies. He also told Lukić that the ICTY prosecutor Louise Arbour was not to be allowed into the country.

In February 2002, the German television network ARD broadcast a controversial documentary film, Es begann mit einer Lüge ("It began with a lie"), which accused the then German defence minister Rudolf Scharping of manipulating the facts of the Račak killings to obtain support from the public and parliament for Germany's involvement in the multinational force in Kosovo.

The film was denounced by Scharping, who accused its producers of "irresponsible cuts and falsifications", and by the Kosovar Albanian interviewees, who said that they had been misrepresented. It was also criticised by other German media and human rights groups.

Forensic reports

Three forensic examinations were carried out on the bodies, by separate teams from Yugoslavia, Belarus (at the time an ally of Yugoslavia) and Finland (under the auspices of the European Union). The three reports did not differ significantly regarding any of the forensic facts. All three examinations took place in controversial circumstances; the Yugoslav and Belarussian forensic teams carried out their autopsies against the opposition of the KVM and ICTY, which had demanded that the outside experts from Finland should be the first to carry out post-mortems on the dead. The Yugoslav and Belarussian autopsies were conducted on 19 January under the auspices of the Pristina Forensic Medical Institute. Its director, Professor Saša Dobričanin, stated that "Not a single body bears any sign of execution. The bodies were not massacred." He told the media that he suspected that the bodies had been mutilated posthumously to fabricate the appearance of an execution.

The European Union team, headed by Dr. Helena Ranta, began its own autopsy on 21 January. The team released its initial findings on 17 March. However, the introduction of this report stresses that this is not the position of the team, but only of Dr. Helena Ranta. The report concluded that "there was no evidence that the victims had been anything other than unarmed civilians and that they had probably been killed where they were later found by the international monitors. Addressing the claims that the dead had been killed wearing KLA uniforms which had then been replaced with civilian clothes, the report states that "...the clothing [of the dead] bore no badges or insignia of any military unit. No indication of removal of badges of rank or insignia was evident. Based on autopsy findings (e.g. bullet holes, coagulated blood) and photographs of the scenes, it is highly unlikely that clothes could have been changed or removed." Dr. Ranta testified at the subsequent war crimes trial of Slobodan Milošević, stating that retrieved bullets, bullet casings and entry and exit wounds indicate that the victims were killed where their bodies were found and at approximately the same time. Later Finnish report showed that only for one victim was it could be proven that he was shot from the close range.

But the report from the Finnish team was kept confidential by the EU until long after the war, and the team leader, Helena Ranta, issued a press release at the time containing her "personal opinion" and indicating differing and opposite findings. Ranta stated that "...medicolegal investigations [such as scientific analysis of bodies] cannot give a conclusive answer to the question whether there was [in fact] a battle [between the police and insurgents]...", but she leaned towards the victims being non-combatants in part because "...no ammunition was found in the pockets" of the bodies she investigated. The report was widely understood as saying that the Finnish team had disproved the finding released by the Yugoslav and Belarusian pathologists, whose tests had shown a positive for gunshot residue on the hands of 37 out of the 40 bodies, indicating that they had fired arms.

Criticism was levelled against the paraffin method used by the Yugoslavs and Belarusians to test for powder residue on the victims' hands, since it regularly gives false positives because of many other substances, including fertilizers, tobacco, urine and cosmetics, and even provides false negatives on occasion. The test is still used by the police of many countries who cannot afford more modern methods, but has been described since as early as 1967 as 'of no use scientifically.'

The international reaction to the Yugoslav and Belarusian report on one hand, (which supported the view that those killed were KLA,) and that of the EU expert team on the other, (which did not find any evidence to suggest that the dead were combatants) differed considerably, not least in the NATO-countries who were preparing for war against Yugoslavia. The former was ignored or dismissed as propaganda, and the latter was accepted as truth; evidence of a massacre against civilians. Several pro-war activists and writers wrote of, and quoted, the Finnish team's press-release as if it were the actual report. Both reports were used as evidence by the prosecution and particularly by the defence of the Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević in his trial at The Hague.

The full report of the EU team was handed over to the ICTY at the end of June 2000. An executive summary was published in 2001, but the full report has not been released due to the ongoing legal investigations into the killings.

Consequences of the incident

Many western governments, human rights groups and international organisations insisted that the Račak incident was a deliberate massacre, conducted in defiance of earlier Yugoslav agreements to end the violence in Kosovo. The OSCE, Council of Europe, European Union, NATO and the United Nations Security Council all issued strongly worded statements condemning the killings. On January 22, the Contact Group of countries with an interest in Yugoslavia (Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the United States) issued a joint statement condemning "the massacre of Kosovo Albanians in Račak on 15 January. All members expressed their revulsion at this act of mass murder. No amount of provocation could justify it. The Contact Group condemns UCK provocations which can only contribute to rising tensions and further violence... The Contact Group also condemns the decisions by the FRY authorities to refuse entry into Kosovo by ICTY Chief Prosecutor Judge Arbour." The Contact Group also called for the Yugoslav authorities to "work with the International Tribunal to ensure that those responsible for Račak are brought to justice [and] suspend those VJ and MUP officers operating in Račak on 15 January pending the results of this investigation becoming available".

The United Nations also condemned the killings, with the Security Council and Secretary General describing them on January 31 as a massacre perpetrated by Serbian security forces.

The ICTY issued a sealed indictment on May 27 for crimes against humanity and violations of the laws and customs of war against a number of senior Yugoslav and Serbian officials. These were Slobodan Milošević (President of Yugoslavia), Milan Milutinović (President of Serbia), Nikola Šainović (Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister), Dragoljub Ojdanić (Chief of the General Staff of the Yugoslav Army) and Vlajko Stojiljković (Serbian Interior Minister). Račak was specifically cited in the ICTY indictment The charges were subsequently dropped at a later ICTY trial of Milutinović, Šainović, Ojdanić, Nebojša Pavković, Vladimir Lazarević and Sretan Lukić.

On June 18, 2001, a court in Priština sentenced a Kosovo Serb to 15 years imprisonment for murder and attempted murder in Račak. Zoran Stojanović, a 32-year-old police officer, was convicted by a joint UN-Kosovo Albanian panel of judges (two United Nations magistrates and one ethnic Albanian).

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