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Serb "Human Shield" Ploys Are War Crimes, U.S. Envoy Says

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 19, 1999 – The Serbs have taken the war crime of using human shields to new extremes in Kosovo, a senior U.S. official told reporters May 18 at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has a history of putting civilians and other noncombatants in harm's way, said David Scheffer, U.S. ambassador-at-large for War Crimes Issues. In Bosnia between 1992 and 1995, Serb forces put hundreds of hostage U.N. peacekeepers and civilians at key military locations to deter attacks.

In the past, Scheffer said, Serb forces ensured hostages were highly visible. In Bosnia, for instance, they allowed television news crews to broadcast the hostage U.N. peacekeepers' plight to the world. In Kosovo, not only are the Serbs using ethnic Albanians to deter attacks, he said, they are reportedly forcibly hiding refugees at military targets so NATO will be blamed if they are killed.

The Serbs' "shell-game strategy," he said, exposes civilians to the risk of military conflict, and "that is illegal. That is a war crime." The 1949 Geneva Convention prohibits belligerents from deliberately placing noncombatants around military targets, he said. Milosevic is not alone in the use of this outlawed tactic; the PLO used it in Lebanon, as did the Somali militia in Somalia, and Saddam Hussein in Kuwait.

In Kosovo, Milosevic's forces reportedly used 500 Kosovar men as human shields March 29, during fighting with Kosovo Liberation Army forces near Klina, Scheffer said. In early April, Serb forces in Orahavic reportedly forced as many as 700 ethnic Albanian men to stand in front of tanks in the rain for two days with their hands behind their backs as the Serbs exchanged fire with KLA forces.

When NATO air strikes began in late March, Scheffer said, the Serbs began using ethnic Albanian men to shield military convoys and fuel facilities. Based on tallies from recent reports, he said, more than 225,000 ethnic Albanian men between the ages of 14 to 59 are unaccounted for in Kosovo. U.S. and NATO officials had previously estimated the number of missing men at 100,000.

Serb forces have reportedly hidden among refugee convoys to avoid attack, Scheffer said. They allegedly dressed in Red Cross and Red Crescent uniforms and moved with refugee convoys between Djakovica and Berkovac on May 6. In order to conceal military insignia, Scheffer said, they covered their wagons with plastic tarpaulins taken from nongovernmental organizations.

The Serbs also have gathered large numbers of ethnic Albanians to shield key military and industrial targets, Scheffer said. "In some cases, the Serbs were using these facilities as temporary detention centers before expelling the ethnic Albanians to [the Former Yugoslav Republic of] Macedonia and Albania," he said.

Serb officials claimed NATO strikes killed 79 refugees near the village of Korisa May 13. An eyewitness, however, told German radio broadcasters the refugees were herded near a special police command post and artillery posts and told: 'Now you're going to see what a NATO bombing strike is like.'

Serb forces allegedly have even attempted to disguise their murders of ethnic Albanians by placing the victims' bodies in the ruins of locations recently bombed by NATO, Scheffer said.

"It is actually rather unique in the history of warfare to have so many thousands of refugees able to speak frankly, openly and honestly about what they have witnessed," he said. The refugees have been providing consistent reports about the Serbs' pattern of ethnic cleansing and the character of their criminal campaign, he said.

NATO and U.S. officials would be more skeptical about what's going on in Kosovo if refugees' accounts were disjointed, inconsistent and contradictory, Scheffer noted. But the stories are fairly convincing when so many eyewitnesses are saying essentially the same things, even if no international observers are in Kosovo to confirm them, he added.

It will be difficult to confirm what has occurred until the fighting ends, he noted. Once an international security force enters the region, however, an International War Crimes Tribunal for Yugoslavia will investigate "this unprecedented crime scene," he said.

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