The Sunday Times - October 31 1999

Cook accused of misleading public on Kosovo massacres

Nicholas Rufford


ROBIN COOK, the foreign secretary, is under pressure to answer claims that ministers misled the public over the scale of deaths among civilians in Kosovo to justify the Nato bombing of Belgrade.

The all-party Balkans committee of MPs will ask the Foreign Office this week to comment on reports that the number of bodies of victims of Serbian ethnic cleansing is lower than the figures of dead issued during the conflict.

At the height of the war, western officials spoke of a death toll as high as 100,000. President Bill Clinton said the Nato campaign had prevented "deliberate, systematic efforts at ethnic cleansing and genocide". Geoff Hoon, then a Foreign Office minister and now the defence secretary, later scaled down the estimates. "It appears that about 10,000 people have been killed in more than 100 massacres," he said.

The most outspoken challenge to these figures has come from Emilio Perez Pujol, a pathologist who led the Spanish team looking for bodies in the aftermath of the fighting. He said: "I calculate that the final figure of dead in Kosovo will be 2,500 at the most. This includes lots of strange deaths that can't be blamed on anyone in particular."

Perez Pujol said the numbers of dead were far lower than the 44,000 he had been warned of, and few were in mass graves. He said his team had arrived in Kosovo expecting to perform 2,000 post-mortem examinations and to work to the end of November. "On September 12 I called my people together and said: 'We have finished here.' I informed my government and told them of the real situation. We had found a total of 187 bodies. Four or five had died from natural causes."

United Nations officials have begun taking stock of the death toll this weekend after the exhumation of corpses stopped for the winter. The UN is expected to report next month that the total number of victims so far uncovered is fewer than 2,000. Many were executed, but some died during fighting and others died in allied bombing.

There is still no clear picture, however. Some of the forensic teams sent by 15 different countries say they have discovered fewer bodies than they anticipated. Others say there is more work to do and believe the death toll will rise.

The US State Department said this weekend that about 1,400 bodies have been recovered from about 20% of suspected massacre sites. There are about 500 suspected sites and priority has been given to those that were believed to contain the most bodies. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia reported earlier this month that the notorious Trepca mines in Kosovo, where 700 ethnic Albanian bodies were reportedly hidden, contained none.

The largest number of bodies has been recovered by British teams of police officers, pathologists and forensic scientists in the area where the worst mass killings reportedly occurred. They found 505 bodies, some in mass graves and many of them women and children.

Detective Chief Superintendent John Bunn, who led the British investigation group, said his teams had completed work at most of the sites around Prizren and Velakrusa, where some of the worst atrocities were said to have occurred. He said he had found graves containing as many as 77 bodies together of people executed at close range.

Alice Mahon, the Labour MP who chairs the Balkans committee, said yesterday that the deaths were tragic but did not justify the military action taken by Nato. "When you consider that 1,500 civilians or more were killed during Nato bombing, you have to ask whether the intervention was justified," she said.

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