Racak incident

The Racak incident alternatively called Racak massacre or Racak operation as it is often called, involved the killing of 45 Albanians in the Kosovo village of Racak on January 15, 1999 by Yugoslav security forces. In their aftermath, NATO issued an ultimatum to the government of Slobodan Milosevic to cease military operations in Kosovo and withdraw security forces or face military action. The Racak killings subsequently featured among the war crimes charges for which Milosevic was eventually indicted and put on trial by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

The importance of this event lies in the fact that it is very widely known and has became a benchmark for other similar operations of Yugoslav forces. Those who oppose the international treatment of Yugoslavia and the NATO bombing campaign that ensued will point say that Racak was a legitimate anti-terrorist operation and claim that other operations were legitimate anti-terrorist operations too. Those who support NATO will say that it was a brutal massacre and claim that other operations were massacres too.



Racak is a small Albanian-inhabited village in the Stimlje Municipality of southern Kosovo. By 1998 it had become the scene of activity by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA, or UCK in Albanian). It had a population of around 2,000 people prior to the displacement of most of its inhabitants during Yugoslav and Serbian military activity in the summer of 1998. By January 1999, around 350 people were reported by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to be living in the village despite the continued presence of KLA and Yugoslav units in the vicinity.

On January 8 and January 10, the KLA mounted attacks on Serbian police in the neighboring municipalities of Suva Reka and Urosevac, causing a number of fatalities. In response, Yugoslav and Serbian security forces established a security cordon in the immediate area of the attacks and around Racak and its neighboring communities. On January 15, reports emerged which claimed that civilians were being killed in Racak. Monitors from the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM), an unarmed observer force from the OSCE, attempted to gain access to the area but were refused permission by security forces. They finally gained access on January 16 along with a number of foreign journalists and found a total of 40 bodies in and around the village. Eleven were found in houses with more than 20 found together in a gully. Another five bodies had already been removed by family members. In all, 45 were reported killed, including a 12-year-old boy and three women. All had been shot and the KVM team reported that it found several bodies decapitated.

KVM head William Walker was among the first OSCE personnel on the scene. He immediately condemned what he labelled "an unspeakable atrocity" which was "a crime against humanity" before he had the chance to investigate whether the dead were KLA fighters or not. He told the party of journalists accompanying him:

"I do not hesitate to accuse the (Yugoslav) government security forces. We want to know who gave the orders, and who carried them out. I will insist that justice will be done. They certainly didn't deserve to die in circumstances like this."

Two days later, on January 18, the Chief Prosecutor of the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Louise Arbour, attempted to enter Kosovo to investigate the killings but was refused access by the Yugoslav authorities. On the same day, heavily armed Serbian police entered Racak and removed the bodies by force, taking them to a morgue in the Kosovo capital Pristina. A joint Serbian-Belarusian team of pathologists conducted post-mortems at the end of January, following which a Finnish forensic team working for the European Union conducted a second post-mortem, which was more detailed but less contemporaneous than the first. The bodies were finally released to the families and buried on February 11.

What happened at Racak?

The course of events in Racak is the subject of considerable controversy. The surviving Albanians and the Yugoslav government presented conflicting versions of what happened on January 15.

Eyewitness accounts

According to eyewitness accounts of the villagers collected by OSCE investigators and international human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch, police and army units began shelling Racak on the morning of January 15 and entered the village around 7 a.m. local time. Police reportedly went to a number of houses and arrested around 20 men, all of whom were later found dead in a gully outside the village. Other villagers were said to have been executed in their own homes or on the streets of the village, while others reported being marched up a hill outside Racak before being shot at by security forces and paramilitaries.

The Yugoslav government rejected this version of events, claiming that all those killed had been KLA fighters and that the village had been abandoned by all but KLA supporters and fighters. According to a police communiqué issued to the international press center in Pristina on the day of the action in Racak, 15 KLA terrorists had been killed in combat in the village and a large stock of weapons had been seized. It was subsequently claimed by Yugoslav sources that KLA terrorists had faked the massacre, tampering with the bodies by dressing dead KLA fighters in civilian clothes and moving many of them into the gully where they were later found. Survivors were said to have been coached or intimidated by KLA supporters into giving investigators a fabricated story about what happened. The KLA admitted that eight or nine of its fighters had been killed in the Racak area, but insisted that all of the 45 dead in Racak itself were civilians.

The matter was confused further by conflicting press reports and apparent political in-fighting in the OSCE monitoring team. A film crew working for the Associated Press accompanied the Yugoslav forces in Racak on January 15. Two French journalists from the Agence France Press and Le Monde interviewed the cameramen and saw at least some of the footage, from which they concluded that nothing untoward had happened and that the bodies had been planted. According to the cameramen,

"It was in fact an empty village that the police entered in the morning, sticking close to the walls. The shooting was intense, as they were fired on from UCK trenches dug into the hillside. The fighting intensified sharply on the hilltops above the village. Watching from below, next to the mosque, the AP journalists understood that the UCK guerrillas, encircled, were trying desperately to break out. A score of them in fact succeeded, as the police themselves admitted."

It was later alleged that the French journalists had been briefed by Gabriel Keller, the French deputy head of the OSCE monitoring team and former French ambassador to Belgrade, who was said to be unhappy at William Walker's swiftness in blaming the Yugoslav government for the killings. Keller was subsequently accused of deliberately undermining Walker, although he denied the allegation.

Forensic reports

The reports presented by the Yugoslav/Belarusian and Finnish forensic teams reached radically different conclusions, and differed widely in their assessment of even the basic forensic facts:

  • The Finnish team reported that there was no sign that the bodies in the gully had been dragged into position, suggesting that they had been killed on the spot, while the Yugoslav/Belarusian team reported that the bodies were in positions that were inconsistent with their locations, suggesting that they had been killed in the fighting and brought there from somewhere else.
  • According to the Finnish investigators, the bullet holes in the victims' clothing matched the wounds on their bodies, suggesting that they had been killed in the same (civilian) clothes that they were found wearing. The investigators also found no evidence that clothes had been interfered with - such as insignia being cut off or - and concluded that it was "highly unlikely that the clothes could have been changed or removed." The Yugoslav/Belarusian team reported that the holes did not match, suggesting that the clothes were changed after the killings. (It has to be said that this issue was not a conclusive indication of the victims' status either way; KLA fighters often did not wear uniforms.)
  • Many victims had multiple gunshot wounds, which the Finnish team asserted was consistent with having been shot from a short range in several different directions, which the Yugoslav/Belarusian team took to be a consequence of being encircled by Yugoslav forces.
  • All of the bullets found by the Finnish investigators were found in the ground directly beneath the bodies, whereas in a combat situation they would have been expected to have penetrated the bodies and continued to travel laterally for some distance.
  • Neither team found any ammunition in the victims' pockets, nor were any weapons found nearby, but the Yugoslav police claimed to have seized a large stockpile of weapons in the village.
  • The Yugoslav/Belarus team of pathologists reported finding gunpowder traces on the hands of 37 bodies using the paraffin glove method. Finnish pathologists could not try to find gunpowder traces due to the amount of time that had elapsed, however a large part of their report is dedicated to dismissal of the method rather then its conclusions. [1] (http://www.helsinki-hs.net/news.asp?id=20030313IE2)
  • The Finnish team's Dr. Helena Ranta concluded that "there were no indications of the people being other than unarmed civilians" while the Yugoslav/Belarusian team reported that the people were armed terrorists.

The international reaction to the two reports also differed considerably. Critics of the Yugoslav/Belarusian report pointed out that the pathologists were employees of governments widely regarded as undemocratic - and in Serbia's case, possibly directly responsible for the killings - and so were arguably not independent. The conclusions of their report were rejected by many countries and human rights organisations, although opponents of the later Kosovo War used it to support the view that the dead were KLA terrorists. The Finnish team's conclusions were generally accepted by overseas governments. However, the two reports played only a minor role in shaping the subsequent course of events, as it was already widely believed on the basis of eyewitness and OSCE reports that the Yugoslav government was responsible for the killings. Both reports have since been used as evidence for the prosecution and defence of the Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic in his trial at The Hague.

Unnamed sources

Unnamed Western sources told the press around January 28 that telephone messages had been intercepted (presumably by the American intelligence services) that directly implicated the Yugoslav government and military in the killings. According to the Washington Post, the Yugoslav government had ordered security forces to "go in hard" to the Racak area to find and kill the KLA guerrillas responsible for earlier attacks on the Serbian police. After the Racak killings, Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic and Interior Ministry General Sreten Lukic reportedly expressed concern about reaction to the Racak assault and discussed how to make the killings appear to have resulted from combat between government troops and Kosovo Liberation Army rebels. On the day of the attack on Racak, Sainovic was aware that the assault was underway and asked how many people had been killed. Lukic replied that as of that moment the tally stood at 22.

Although their veracity has not yet been confirmed independently, the transcripts are believed to have played an important part in the subsequent indictment of both Sainovic and Lukic for war crimes in Kosovo.

Other claims

Some have alleged that William Walker was acting as an agent for United States intelligence agencies, on the grounds that in an earlier role as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central America (during the 1980s) he had allegedly colluded illegally with Nicaragua's rebel Contras. However, he was cleared by the independent counsel appointed to investigate the Iran-Contra affair.

Consequences of the incident

Many foreign governments, human rights groups and international organisations very quickly agreed that the Racak incident was a deliberate massacre, conducted in defiance of earlier Yugoslav agreements to end the violence in Kosovo. The OSCE, Council of Europe, European Union, NATO and the United Nations Security Council all issued strongly worded statements condemning the killings. Opponents of later Kosovo War point out that the governments are mostly NATO members or members of other international organisations most members of which are NATO members, that international organisations are dominated by these governments (most notably by the United States and the United Kingdom), and that human rights groups are mostly based in and financed by such countries. The timing was an unwelcome surprise. It had been widely predicted that an upsurge in fighting was likely in the spring, when weather conditions were more favourable for military operations, but it had not been thought likely that any major operations would happen as early as January. The security forces' operation at Racak was interpreted as being a precursor to a bigger offensive against Albanian rebels, prompting United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to comment that "Spring has come early to Kosovo". It was decided that a much firmer policy was required to prevent Kosovo from sliding into all-out war.

On January 29, the Contact Group of countries with an interest in Yugoslavia (Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the United States) issued a joint statement deploring "the massacre of Kosovo Albanians at Racak which resulted in several thousand people fleeing their homes" and calling a peace conference to be held at Rambouillet in France. At the same time, NATO issued an ultimatum to Yugoslavia, warning that it would take military action if Milosevic's government "did not comply with the demands of the international community". The United Nations also condemned the killings, with the Security Council and Secretary General describing them on January 31 as a massacre perpetrated by Serbian security forces.

The ICTY investigated the Racak killings along with other alleged crimes carried out in Kosovo during the subsequent war, and on May 27 issued indictments for crimes against humanity and violations of the laws and customs of war against a number of senior Yugoslav and Serbian officials. These were Slobodan Milosevic (President of Yugoslavia), Milan Milutinovic (President of Serbia), Nikola Sainovic (Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister), Dragoljub Ojdanic (Chief of the General Staff of the Yugoslav Army) and Vlajko Stojiljkovic (Serbian Interior Minister). Racak was specifically cited in the ICTY indictment (http://www.un.org/icty/indictment/english/milu-3ai020905e.pdf).

On June 18, 2001, a Kosovo Serb was jailed for 15 years for murder and attempted murder in Racak. Zoran Stojanovic, a 32-year-old police officer, was convicted by a joint UN-Kosovo Albanian panel of judges (two United Nations magistrates and one ethnic Albanian).

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