Monday, October 02, 2006

Trial opens in Serbia for 8 former policemen charged in Kosovo massacre

BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro (AP) - Eight former Serbian policemen went on trial in Belgrade on Monday on charges related to one of the worst massacres of the Kosovo war.

The eight, including former senior police commanders, are accused of executing 48 ethnic Albanian civilians, all but one from a single family, in Suva Reka in March 1999.

The victims included 14 children, two infants, a pregnant woman and a 100-year-old woman. Their bodies were later dumped in a mass grave at a police training camp near Belgrade, where they were discovered in 2001.

Monday's proceedings were the first here in connection with the mass graves of Kosovo victims found in central Serbia after former President Slobodan Milosevic was ousted in 2000 by a pro-Western coalition.

Among the defendants were the former assistant commander of the elite Gendarmerie unit, Radoslav Mitrovic, who served a special police commander in Kosovo during the war, as well as former police commander in Suva Reka, Radojko Repanovic. The others were lower-ranking policemen and state security officials.

Mitrovic pleaded not guilty and claimed he was in another Kosovo town at the time of the Suva Reka killings. The hearings were to continue Tuesday, with the other suspects entering pleas.

Bruno Vekaric, the spokesman for the war crimes prosecutor's office, said the case against the suspects was "solid." The defendants each face up to 40 years in prison if convicted.

The war crimes trials in Serbia are considered a test of the Balkan republic's ability to impose justice and face its nationalist past.

About 10,000 people were killed during the Kosovo war, which erupted in 1998 when ethnic Albanians launched a rebellion against Serbia's rule.

The brutality of Serbia's crackdown against the Kosovo rebels prompted NATO in 1999 to bomb Serbia for 78 days, forcing Serb troops to pull out of the province.

Kosovo has been an international protectorate since 1999, and talks are under way to determine its future status.

Milosevic, who was accused of orchestrating the Kosovo conflict and other Balkan wars, died in March while on trial for genocide at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. Several other Serbian officials are also being tried there in connection with the Kosovo atrocities.

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