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Friday, June 25, 1999 Published at 23:16 GMT 00:16 UK

World: Europe

Kosovo prisoners freed

The prisoners were relieved that they could finally go home

A group of 166 Kosovo Albanian prisoners detained in Serb prisons has been released and returned to Kosovo, telling of being beaten and tortured by retreating Serb forces.

Kosovo: Special Report
The men were handed over by the Yugoslav authorities to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which returned them to the province.

The freed prisoners, released earlier on Friday from two prisons in southern Serbia, were bussed to a storage building in Pristina where there were tearful scenes as they were reunited with their families.

Most of those released were from Pec, Istok, Decani and Djakovica, all in western Kosovo, with a few from Srbica in the centre of the province. The ICRC said it would return the men to their home districts.

The BBC's John McIntyre reports on the prisoners' homecoming
"The ICRC's role in this operation is to protect and assist these men who, if they had travelled home unaccompanied, would have been in danger," the organisation said in a statement.

Those arriving in Pristina told of violence during their time in prison.

'Forced to eat soap'

Labinot Lipoveci, a merchant from Djakovica, said: "I was accused of terrorist activities and of action against the police and the Serbian army."

He said he was first taken to Djakovica prison where he was held for two days, and badly beaten. He was then taken to Pec where he was held for 19 days. Mr Lipoveci said the head of the prison told the prisoners they would then be sent to a "safe place".

The BBC's Andy Tighe reports: The men looked relieved that their ordeal was finally over
"When we got on the buses we were very badly beaten, so badly I can't describe it. We were forced to eat soap and many of us had wounds on our heads.

"I hope that what happened will be forgotten very soon and we will enjoy freedom like all people in the world," he added.

Another man, Selman Ceku from Irznic, also said he had been tortured and beaten while held in another Serbian prison.

"Our return to free Kosovo is like being born a second time," he said.

Not the last of the prisoners

The ICRC says it is seeking access to other Kosovo Albanian detainees in Serbia.

ICRC spokeswoman Daloni Carlisle said she hoped Friday's release would be the first of many.

"We know that many more people are held. We are very much hoping to have access to all remaining prisoners, those held in connection with the crisis in Kosovo.

"For people held by Yugoslav authorities and also allegedly held by the Kosovo Liberation Army we are pressing very much for negotiations and we are prepared to mutually mediate as ICRC for their release," she said.

It is not known how many people are still detained, but the United Nations human rights office has said the Serbian forces may have taken up to 3,000 prisoners with them as they withdrew from Kosovo.

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