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BBC News Front page | World | Europe | Kosovo | Yugoslavia after Milosevic | Killing of Kosovo
Velika Krusa
Velika Krusa is one of the largest villages of the Drini valley and was also suspected of being a Kosovo Liberation Army stronghold before the start of air strikes.

Within hours of the Nato bombardment of Yugoslavia beginning on 25 March, the settlement and its neighbouring villages became the focus for what appears to have been a horrific series of attacks, as innocent ethnic Albanians were killed in presumed reprisals for KLA support.

Velika Kruso videoBefore the final breakdown of the ceasefire between the KLA and Serb forces earlier this year, international monitors had worked hard to calm an already tense situation. Chris Cobb-Smith, the former monitor for the Velika Krusa area, said the village had been known as a "thorn in the side" of Serb forces.

"There was a small KLA presence in Velika Krusa but it was more of a community relations point than a military force," Mr Cobb-Smith told the BBC's Panorama programme. "They [the Serbs] were conscious of the KLA presence and perhaps it was one of the reasons it was so badly hit very early on."

Bones: Charred and unrecognisable
According to testimony gathered by war crimes investigators and journalists, Serb forces entered Velika Krusa on the evening of 25 March.

Within hours, villagers were fleeing into the forests as the Yugoslav army shelled homes and the paramilitary police systematically looted property before setting it alight.

Melaim Bellanica, a survivor who later supplied video footage of the aftermath to the BBC, watched in horror as the massacre unfolded.

"A group of Serbs were on top of the hill. Others came from behind," he said. "There were more than 100 soldiers, some of the Serbs had masks, others were in uniform."

Selami Helshami: Sole survivor
He said all the young men who were rounded up were farmers. Some of the Serbs called out some of the villagers by name, adding weight to allegations that local men had been drafted into units, turning on people who had long been their neighbours.

Paramilitary police located the villagers in the forests and ordered the women and small children to leave for Albania. Once the men were assembled, Serb police searched the men and boys and confiscated their identity documents.

Selami Helshami, interviewed by Panorama, told how the police ordered this group, including himself, to a nearby building and opened fire on the men. He recounted how, as the bodies fell, he had been shielded from the hail of bullets. Minutes later, the Serbs doused the bodies in petrol and set them alight.

The Serb forces left, expecting evidence of the massacre to be consumed by the fire. But despite suffering horrific burns, Mr Helshami crawled out of the building.

Investigators: Made village a priority
"I began searching the neighbourhood in the hope of finding someone who was still alive," Mr Helshami said. "But there were only dead bodies. Some of them were headless, others had only their head left."

Women smuggled Mr Helshani out of Kosovo under blankets on a tractor with only yoghurt to treat his appalling wounds. "God wanted people like me to be saved so that we can tell the world about what happened," said Mr Helshani.

Days later, Mr Bellanica who had been hiding in the forest for a week, emerged and filmed the remains of the village and the bodies of men where they had fallen. Mr Bellanica's film identified 26 victims. Most had died from a single gun shot to the head or neck. All were wearing civilian clothes. The survivors buried up to 70 bodies in woodland before fleeing for Albania.

Shallow graves: Dead hastily buried
Returning to the village with Mr Bellanica, Panorama's reporter Jane Corbin and cameraman Mike Spooner found consistent evidence of massacres. Other returning families have discovered about a dozen sites around the village where massacres or killings appear to have taken place.

One man who had returned to the village, Fadil Zeqiri, showed the BBC the remains of his 77-year-old father Ordil whose charred remains had been found in the armchair of his home. Villagers believe Mr Zeqiri was burnt alive when Serb forces torched his home.

But the most damning evidence was found in the remains of the farm outbuilding from which Selami Helshani escaped.

Scorch marks covered the walls of the building and charred remains covered the ground, mixed with the remains of roof timbers. Investigators have already found a number of "762 Short" bullet casings in the building, ammunition known to be used by the Yugoslav military.

"Going back and seeing the village totally devastated, without a soul about, no people at all, I think probably hit me harder than anywhere else," said Chris Cobb-Smith.