BELGRADE, Serbia — Acting on tips from witnesses, Serbian war crimes prosecutors have discovered a mass grave believed to contain the bodies of 250 Albanians who were killed in Kosovo during the 1998-99 war there, then transported to Serbia and secretly buried to hide the atrocities, officials said Monday.
The burial site — hidden beneath a small building and a newly built parking lot — is the fourth mass grave of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo that has been found in Serbia since 2001. Two others were discovered in Kosovo. In each case, most of the bodies were those of civilians, including women and children.
The latest discovery is another example of the mass atrocities that were committed during the bloody Serb crackdown on the Kosovo separatists that killed at least 10,000 people and left nearly a million displaced.
Hundreds of bodies of slain ethnic Albanians have been exhumed in Serbia and returned to Kosovo since Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was ousted from power in a popular revolt in 2000. The previously discovered mass graves in Serbia represented the bulk of genocide charges filed against Milosevic at a U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Netherlands, where he died of a heart attack during his trial in 2006.
Serbia has since tried to deal with its wartime past as it seeks European Union membership, which requires the prosecution of those who committed atrocities during the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. Milosevic’s policies still have strong support among ultranationalists in Serbia.
“According to witness testimonies, there are 250 bodies of Kosovo Albanians inside” the newly discovered grave, Serbia’s war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic said at a news conference Monday in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital.
He said exhumations would begin soon at the site, which was discovered based on witness accounts and in co-operation with a European Union mission in Kosovo.
Serbia’s war crimes prosecutor’s office said the grave is located in a hilly, rural area of Rudnica, near the town of Raska, 180 kilometres (108 miles) south of Belgrade.
Aerial photos of the site showed a house and a small parking lot near a road nestled between the hills. Vukcevic’s deputy, Bruno Vekaric, said the mass grave is believed to be located beneath the building and the parking lot.
Officials did not say when the grave was discovered.
During the Kosovo war, the bodies of Kosovo victims were brought to Serbia by Milosevic’s regime in an attempt to cover up the atrocities against civilians.
Some 1,860 ethnic Albanians are still missing from the Kosovo war, many believed to have been buried by Serb forces in similar mass graves in Serbia.
“Serbia has the democratic capacity to face what happened,” Vukcevic said. “It is our obligation to the victims who have the right to bury the dead.”
The brutality of Serbia’s crackdown in Kosovo prompted NATO to bomb the country in 1999, forcing Milosevic to pull out his troops. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Belgrade refuses to recognize it.
In Kosovo on Monday, officials urged Serbia to face up to its past and overcome its troubled relations with Kosovo Albanians.
Kosovo deputy Prime Minister, Rame Manaj, claimed the discovery was a result of pressure from the EU.
“This comes too late, but this pressure from the international community is welcome as it is the only force that can move things from point zero,” Manaj said of the discovery of the bodies.
“It is painful news,” said Xhavit Beqiri, the spokesman for Kosovo’s president.
“We suspect there are more Kosovo victims in other such mass graves around Serbia which Belgrade has always known about, but has selectively unearthed them to reduce the scope of the crimes committed in Kosovo,” Beqiri said.
Vukcevic urged Kosovo’s authorities to investigate the fate of about 500 Kosovo Serbs who he said remain unaccounted for since the 1998-99 war after revenge attacks by ethnic Albanians.
Associated Press writers Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade and Nebi Qena in Pristina contributed to this report.