CEOL - UN Says More Than 2,000 Bodies Exhumed In Kosovo So Far

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 11, 1999 -- (Reuters) U.N. investigators have exhumed more than 2,000 corpses in Kosovo to date, but the true number of ethnic Albanian victims may be much higher, the chief U.N. prosecutor Carla del Ponte said on Wednesday.

Giving the first concrete figures on deaths in Kosovo, Del Ponte told the U.N. Security Council that forensic experts had found the 2,108 bodies in a third of 529 grave sites that reports indicated might contain up to 4,256 bodies.

Many of the bodies had been burned and steps had been taken to hide the evidence, she told a press conference.

She said that a total of 11,334 deaths had been reported to her office from media and other sources but not verified. Forensic teams from the U.N. Hague-based war crimes tribunal entered the Yugoslav province with peacekeeping troops five months ago.

Thousands of ethnic Albanians were thought to have died during a Serb crackdown that ended in June when Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic accepted a peace plan for Kosovo following weeks of NATO-led bombing.

So far the tribunal has issued public indictments against Milosevic and four associates. But Del Ponte indicated she also was considering charges against the Kosovo Liberation Army, which fought Yugoslav troops for independence.

"But I don't want to tell you more," she said.

Del Ponte, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, cautioned that the figures she was giving for Kosovo did not necessarily reflect the number of actual victims.

"There were also a significant number of sites where the precise number of bodies cannot be counted. In these places steps were taken to hide the evidence. Many bodies have been burned," Del Ponte said.

"The figures themselves may therefore not tell the whole story, and we would not expect the forensic evidence in isolation to produce a definitive total," she said, adding that she hoped to complete the probe next year.

Del Ponte, a Swiss citizen, took over in mid-September as prosecutor for the Yugoslavia tribunal as well as a Tanzania-based tribunal investigating the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. She replaced Canadian Louise Arbour.

She noted that international troops in Bosnia had arrested 14 accused but emphasized that suspects "at the highest levels" had not been apprehended, a reference to Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic.

Del Ponte said that Croatia too had challenged the jurisdiction of the court and she was willing to talk to Zagreb about it. "But the fact they deny my jurisdiction makes it even hard to engage in discussions," she said.

Most Security Council members praised the tribunal's work but Russian envoy Gennady Gatilov said detaining or arresting suspects should not be done without the consent of the state harboring the accused.

He also objected to sealed indictments, which the tribunal has used in Bosnia to make sure suspects did not flee before arrest by NATO-led troops and said the court needed to investigate actions against Serbs also.

Gatilov said that the tribunal should consider its indictments in light of efforts to "move the peace process forward" both in the case of Milosevic and the sealed indictment of a Bosnian Serb general arrested in Vienna while attending an international seminar.

Del Ponte denied this was the case. "I can assure you that my office deals with investigations where the perpetrators are not only Serbs. We have perpetrators that are Moslems and from the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army)."

But she said the prosecutor had to close its offices in Belgrade and had little access to victims there.

She said there were some 30 fugitives at large "and I intend to use secret indictments."

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