By GARENTINA KRAJA of the Miami Herald
Residents of this close-knit, predominantly ethnic Albanian community still remember the day when they say police stormed their village tucked between green fields and snow-covered mountains, killing seven men.
On Monday, FYR Macedonia’s former interior minister and a senior police official go before the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, on charges of murder, wanton destruction and cruel treatment in the operation.
Prosecutors say they will be the only people to be tried there on charges stemming from FYR Macedonia’s 2001 conflict between government forces and ethnic Albanian rebels.
The trial, which is expected to hear opening statements Monday before adjourning until May 7, may test the reconciliation between the FYR Macedonian Slavic majority and the ethnic Albanian minority.
“I want to ask them why they attacked Ljuboten. Did they see signs of fighters? None were here, no one had a uniform on and no one fought,” said Elmaz Isufi, whose son was killed in the operation.
According to the U.N. indictment, seven civilians were killed in house-to-house police searches on Aug. 12, 2001, and officers gutted 14 homes with hand grenades or fire and destroyed other buildings with shelling. Villagers who fled were stopped at checkpoints and beaten.
The indictment says the action was “organized, systematic and pervasive.”
The operation was apparently launched in retaliation after eight FYR Macedonian soldiers were killed when their truck hit a land mine.
The indictment says former Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski had “superior responsibility” for the actions of police and failed to punish his subordinates for the killings. The senior police official, Johan Tarculovsky, was part of a joint criminal enterprise to direct “an unlawful attack on civilians,” it says.
Both men have pleaded not guilty. Boskovski’s lawyer, Edina Residovic, argued in a pretrial brief that there was no war in FYR Macedonia at the time and it was impossible for the men to have committed war crimes. The brief added that none of the alleged killers had been under Boskovski’s control at the time.
The defendants face a possible punishment of life imprisonment. The policemen who allegedly carried out the killings are not on trial.
FYR Macedonia, a landlocked country of 2.1 million people, split from Yugoslavia in 1991 with Croatia and Slovenia. FYR Macedonia remained at peace as a brief armed attempt to prevent Slovenia’s secession failed and fighting in Croatia killed up to 10,000 people.
In 1999, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians poured into northern FYR Macedonia from neighboring Kosovo to flee former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s troops. Two years later, FYR Macedonia’s ethnic Albanians launched their insurgency to fight for more rights for their minority, which comprises about a quarter of the population. A Western-brokered peace deal ended the fighting after six months.
But in the village of Ljuboten, residents say that hate still runs deep between the two groups. Many ethnic Albanians remain outraged over the 2001 police operation.
Isufi is expected to travel to The Hague to testify in the case, despite the fact he is paralyzed and frail. He said he hopes to see Boskovski and Tarculovsky punished.
His son, Rami Isufi, a 33-year-old father of four, had stayed in Ljuboten despite a buildup of forces around the village, which is in a predominantly FYR Macedonian area of the country. Isufi said his son believed a peace deal that was about to be signed that would end the fighting.
The next day, Rami was hit by a string of bullets allegedly fired by police officers who had forced their way into the family’s yard. According to the indictment, he was unarmed and was shot at close range in the stomach.
“We saw him dying,” said Isufi, 64, tears running down his cheeks.
“It will never satisfy me,” he said of the possible punishment of the defendants. “It will lessen my pain a bit, because at least it will be known who is the guilty one, so that this crime is not covered up.”
Sadik Qaili, whose cousin Atullah died of injuries from beatings he received during the raid, said reconciliation between the village’s ethnic Albanians and FYR Macedonians was difficult to imagine.
“We’re waiting day and night to see how The Hague tribunal will decide,” he said. “We were empty-handed and they were bent on ethnically cleansing us.”
Many FYR Macedonians regard Boskovski and Tarculovsky as heroes. On Sunday, hundreds of supporters attended a nationally broadcast service outside the main cathedral in the capital, Skopje, and demanded a fair trial.
Vera Gluvceva, an 83-year-old FYR Macedonian, said she believed the charges had been invented. “I think they want only FYR Macedonians to be blamed for the conflict,” she said.
FYR Macedonia’s government said Sunday it expected a “fair, transparent and objective” trial and pledged to continue giving moral and financial support to the two men and their families, according to a statement.
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