At the trial of the so-called Gnjilane group, defence witnesses claim that the crimes in Gnjilane happened after the arrival of the US KFOR troops into town, who brought with them the KLA soldiers.
Three former inhabitants of the town of Gnjilane, in eastern Kosovo, testified on Wednesday at the Special Court in Belgrade in the case against 17 former Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, fighters charged with war crime against civilians.
Zoran Vitkovic, former judge of the Municipal Court in Gnjilane, claimed that mass murders and robberies in Gnjilane started after the arrival of the American KFOR troops.
“As soon as our [Yugoslav] army left Kosovo, the French came. No one complained then and we were all still going to work. Everything was fine until the Americans came and brought the KLA with them,” said Vitkovic.
His former fellow citizen Milos Mladenovic also described the situation after the arrival of the US troops as unbearable.
“People were more afraid, Serbs started slowly retreating from the town, houses were being set on fire, bombs thrown. I heard from my Albanian colleagues that they were threatened and told to stop talking to Serbs. A lot of new people in black uniforms came into town. I don’t know who they were, people were saying it’s KLA,” said Mladenovic.
After signing the Kumanovo Agreement on June 9, 1999, which ended the conflict in Kosovo and arranged the withdrawal of Serb military forces from the territory, the French, then Russian and eventually US troops entered Gnjilane as part of the NATO military mission. At that time around 20,000 Serbs left Gnjilane.
Vitkovic and Mladenovic were tortured by an ethnic Albanian armed group, dubbed the ‘Gnjilane group’ by the prosecution. However, the witnesses could not confirm whether the defendants took part in the attacks.
The indictment issued by the prosecution on August 11, 1999, charges Nazif Hasani, Ahmet Hasani, Faton Hajdari, Samet Hajdari, Ferat Hajdari, Kamber Sahiti, Selimon Sadiki, Agush Memishi, Burim Fazliu and Shemsi Nuhiu, former members of the KLA, with torturing to death at least 80 people between early June and late December 1999.
At least 34 people are still considered missing, while at least 153 people, who were illegally detained and tortured, were subsequently released.
Fazliu Ajdari, Rexhep Aliu, Shaqir Shaqiri, Shefqet Musliu, Sadik Aliu, Idriz Aliu and Ramadan Halimi are tried in absentia, since they are on the run.
Previously, the defence witnesses Shaban Hajdari and Enver Gvinali testified that one of the defendants, Shemsi Nuhiu, was in Kumanovo at the time the crimes in Gnjilane were committed.
The uncle of the defendant Nuhiu, Enver Gvinali, said that Nuhiu and his family were in Kumanovo between March and December 1999 and he was not leaving the town because his brother was sick and he had to take care of him.
Shemsi Nuhiu was arrested in Switzerland, and he was extradited to Serbia in March. He pleaded not guilty.
A court in Belgrade sentenced nine members of the Gnjilane Group to a total of 101 years in prison for war crimes against civilians on January 21, 2011. The War Crime Chamber of the Appellate Court in Belgrade quashed that verdict on December 7, 2011, and sent the case for a re trial.