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Friday, June 18, 1999 Published at 04:41 GMT 05:41 UK

World: Europe

Analysis: Bringing the criminals to trial

A suspected mass grave of ethnic Albanians in Kacanik

By Gillian Sharpe in The Hague

Forensic investigators from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia have arrived in Kosovo, ending a frustrating six-month wait.

"There's a real sense of urgency," says Deputy Prosecutor, Graham Blewitt.

K-For troops moving into Kosovo have begun uncovering evidence of mass-grave sites and the remains of charred bodies.

Kosovo: Special Report
As soon as international troops have secured the areas and cleared them of any anti-personnel mines and booby traps, the tribunal will move in.

About 100 forensic experts from more than a dozen countries are expected to join the effort to document war crimes in Kosovo.

[ image:  ]
Their focus will be on collecting surface evidence like bullet cases and skull fragments, which can easily be lost.

Perishable evidence

"It's not the first priority to exhume the mass graves because that evidence will stay there until next year," says Graham Blewitt. "We need to get the evidence that's going to perish."

This is the biggest investigation ever undertaken by the tribunal and, unlike in Bosnia - where crimes had sometimes taken place years before - the Kosovo sites are relatively recent.

That gives investigators a unique opportunity, but means they will have to move fast.

Returning refugees and television crews at the sites of alleged atrocities could prove to be problematic.

"It enables an accused to come by later and say the evidence was planted by the media, by the KLA, by whoever," says Mr Blewitt.

[ image: Evidence of a suspected grave at Izbica]
Evidence of a suspected grave at Izbica
The tribunal wanted to get to these sites first, but in some cases that simply won't happen. Neither will the tribunal be investigating every site.

With limited resources, it has to target its efforts. If returning refugees themselves exhume mass graves, the tribunal hopes at least to have someone there to observe the process.

Crimes against humanity

Even without access to Kosovo, prosecutors have already issued crimes against humanity charges against Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic and four top government officials.

They are charged with responsibility for the deportation of about 740,000 Kosovo Albanians and the murder of at least 340 named people. Those charges are likely to be expanded.

The kind of evidence needed by an international court prosecuting war crimes is much the same as in any national system: witness statements, documents and physical evidence.

In the case of Kosovo, there has been no shortage of accounts from refugees. The biggest problem for the tribunal has been to sift through the huge quantities of information.

In recent weeks, western governments have handed over sensitive intelligence information. The physical evidence now to be collected, completes the evidence-triangle needed for a strong courtroom case.

But actually getting people to the Hague to answer charges is bound to be difficult. K-For troops - like S-For in Bosnia - can make arrests, but it seems unlikely that those suspected of committing war crimes in Kosovo will stay in the province.

Mr Blewitt predicts an eventual change of government in Yugoslavia, which, if it wants to be accepted back into the international community, will have to make a clear commitment to investigating war crimes.

"It's going to take years but it can be done," he says.

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