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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Milosevic Snubs U.N. Human Rights Official

Yugoslavia: Mary Robinson meets instead with foreign minister, who denies claims of 'ethnic cleansing' in Kosovo.

May 14, 1999|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic declined to meet Thursday with the United Nations' top human rights official, who came to confront him with evidence that his military is conducting a vast and brutal expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.

Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, met instead with Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic, who told her that seven weeks of NATO bombing has killed 1,200 civilians and urged her to condemn it. He denied that the government has a policy of "ethnic cleansing."

About half of Kosovo's 1.8 million ethnic Albanians, the U.N. rights agency says, have fled since Milosevic's forces 14 months ago began targeting civilians as well as guerrillas in their crackdown on a separatist movement. Until then, Albanians outnumbered Serbs 9 to 1 in Kosovo--a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization says it is bombing Yugoslavia to halt the crackdown and ensure the refugees' safe return, but the exodus intensified after the allied assault began. Ethnic Albanians have been streaming out of Kosovo by the hundreds of thousands, telling reporters and aid officials of a systematic purge by Yugoslav army troops and Serbian police.

Arriving here after a tour of refugee camps in neighboring Albania and Macedonia, Robinson urged the authorities to halt what she called "a devastating pattern" of "coldblooded" abuses.

"When you have such an overwhelming pattern of violations reported by professional monitors, then it's either a deliberate policy or a policy of failing to address that," she told Jovanovic.

Milosevic gave no reason for snubbing Robinson, a former president of Ireland.

"I was very anxious to meet him," she told reporters, "because I have had direct witness myself of the human rights violations suffered by a large number of Kosovo Albanians, what drove them from their homes directly, and it has been people in uniform--army uniform, police uniform, paramilitary uniform.

"It has been very brutal . . . in some cases separating menfolk from their families, many of them having their homes burned immediately behind them," she added.

In an interview last month with United Press International, Milosevic acknowledged that "bad things happened" in Kosovo, "as they did with both sides during the Vietnam War." He blamed irregular paramilitary forces for abuses and said some officers had been tried and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Even so, state-controlled media here continue to insist that NATO bombs and missiles are the only reason people are fleeing Kosovo. That view is shared by many educated Serbs who are able to watch or read Western media accounts from the refugee camps.

A Yugoslav government minister, Goran Matic, went a step further this week, claiming at a news briefing that NATO had hired 3,000 to 4,000 ethnic Albanians to march in a circle through Macedonia, Albania, the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro and back to Kosovo, acting like vast numbers of people on the run. The hoax broke down, he asserted, when the "actors" weren't paid and tried to go home, whereupon NATO bombed their convoys.

Robinson said she asked the refugees she interviewed whether it was the bombing that had forced them to leave; each time, "I was told, 'No, it was not.' "

Some human rights activists outside Yugoslavia criticized Robinson for seeking to meet Milosevic. She dodged a reporter's question about whether she agreed with those critics that Milosevic should be treated as a war criminal rather than a potential peacemaker.

The government exploited her visit for its own propaganda--and got a bonus from NATO. As Robinson was riding to the Serbian city of Nis on Wednesday to inspect bomb damage, NATO planes dropped cluster bombs there for the second time in six days. Serbian state television that evening showed her walking in a civilian neighborhood that had just been hit.

Thursday night's telecast said Robinson and the foreign minister discussed "the brutal aggression of NATO against Yugoslavia." It did not mention "ethnic cleansing."

Speaking to reporters, Robinson said she accepted the military campaign as one aimed at safeguarding human rights.

"But there has to be proportionality," she said. "It has to be very targeted in a military sense. . . . In this campaign, it seems that the targets are very wide. Certainly, the civilian casualties are extremely high. It really does raise very serious questions."

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