Deadly Toll of Yugoslav Brigade’s Kosovo Attacks Revealed

A Yugoslav Army brigade’s military assaults on eight Kosovo villages that killed 885 people in 1999 have now been fully documented, but Serbia may never prosecute its commander.

Ibish Morina is still haunted by memories of March 26, 1999, the day that Serbian forces launched their assault on his village of Landovica in Kosovo.

“Shooting started from all sides. My family and I hid in the Gashi family’s house. I don’t know if the shooting came from a military police tank or an army tank, but it was horrible,” Morina said.

“At one point a grenade hit my [daughter] Njomza who was in the hallway. Children started screaming and jumping out of the windows of the house. Then my wife saw they killed our daughter. She started screaming. I just told her: ‘Calm down, wait. We will all be killed anyway,’” he continued.

He said that all civilians in the house, more than 60 of them, started running towards the woods. While running, they came under heavy fire and 12 villagers were killed, including nine children.

“We left those bodies behind us. Later I heard the soldiers came to pick up bodies and put them in trucks,” Morina said.

Most of the villagers left Landovica and tried to find refugein the area around the town of Prizren.

The next day, Serb soldiers set off explosives at the village mosque and destroyed its minaret.

The attack came in the midst of the war between Yugoslav forces and Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA guerrillas fighting to break free from Belgrade’s control.

The Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade on Wednesday published a file containing the most comprehensive documentation of the attack and seven other military offensives in Kosovo villages in March and April 1999 carried out by the 549th Brigade of the Yugoslav Army, which resulted in a total of 885 deaths.

The army said at the time that the reason for the March 26 attack was that two of its soldiers were killed and another two wounded by KLA gunmen earlier that day.

Official army reports from the scene said the soldiers went to buy some sweets at the local shop. When they tried to return, they came under fire. The two who survived raised the alarm.

Crimes unpunished in Serbia

According to the Humanitarian Law Centre, some of those who should be prosecuted over the attacks in Serbia have yet to face justice.

“The command of this brigade was in Prizren, while the commander was Bozidar Delic. They committed eight mass crimes and up to now no one has been prosecuted in Serbia for that,” said the Humanitarian Law Centre’s director, Sandra Orlovic.

Orlovic said that her organisation gathered all the data related to the case including Hague Tribunal transcripts, forensic reports and testimonies.

The brigade’s attacks followed a clear pattern, she said.

“In the early morning, the 549th Brigade would shell a village settled mainly by Albanians, after which the Serbian police would enter and round up all the Albanians –the men would be killed, while the old, women and children would be robbed and sent to the Albanian border. Their houses would be set on fire,”Orlovic said.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, has prosecuted top officials for war crimes which involved the 549thBrigade.

Former Yugoslav army general Dragoljub Ojdanic, former chief of staff of the Yugoslav Army Nebojsa Pavkovic, the commander of the Yugoslav Army’s Pristina corps Vladimir Lazarevic, former interior minister Sreten Lukic and former Serbian police general Vlastimir Djordjevic were convicted in 2009 of the killings, deportation and inhumane treatment of Albanians in Kosovo in 1999.

The ICTY was also trying former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic for the same crimes, but because of his death, there was no verdict.

During Milosevic’s trial, a number of protected witnesses testified, former members of the 549th Unit who all claimed that their commander was General Bozidar Delic.

“We got orders to shoot at everyone that moves or enters the village,” said one of the witnesses, codenamed K 41, at Milosevic’s trial.

Delic, who until last year was a member of the Serbian parliament, has never denied being a commander of the unit, but had denied committing war crimes.

“I know what was happening in my area of responsibility. I was always in the first line of attack,” said Delicat the ICTY, claiming however that he had “no knowledge of the mass killings of Albanians”.

Regarding the army’s assault on the village of Landovica, Delic told the Serbian Commission for Cooperation with the ICTY that the attack was launched in response to the KLA’s killing of his soldiers.

“I ordered the engagement of one whole army squad… and ordered Major Nikolic to send one tank,” Delic wrote in a statement to the commission, explaining that the village was a base for “terrorists”.

For ‘heroic acts’ during the war in Kosovo, the 549th Brigade was honoured by then President Milosevic, who awarded ita People’s Hero medal for the “heroic defence of the country”.

‘No state-sanctioned atrocities’

The Serbian war crimes prosecutor’s office said that Delic has been under investigation more than once.

“He had one of the crucial roles in Kosovo war and he has been questioned several times. However, it is very complex to prosecute over command responsibility as it was not envisaged in Serbian law until 2005,” a source from the prosecution office told BIRN.

Milomir Matovic, who has acted as a lawyer in several war crimes cases before the Serbian Special Court, said that this was just an excuse.

“It is true that Serbia didn’t have a law, but there is the Geneva Convention, which Serbia signed. Command responsibility has been envisaged by specific additional protocols and its articles 86 and 87,” Matovic said.

“The Serbian prosecution has been using the Geneva Convention regularly in its cases, but constantly avoids using these specific articles related to command responsibility,” he explained.

So far only three high officials have been prosecuted for war crimes at the Serbian national court.

Orlovic said that this was the result of Belgrade’s strategy to present war crimes committed by Serbs as minor incidents and not state-ordered.

The last three major ICTY cases against wartime commanders –Croatian generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, three top Kosovo Liberation Army officers and Yugoslav Army General Perisic –have all ended in acquittals, with the Tribunal arguing that command responsibility had not been proven.

That could embolden Belgrade to evade potential prosecutions of top military officials allegedly responsible for atrocities such as the attacks on Kosovo villages by the 549th Brigade, Orlovic suggested.

“Especially now, acquittal verdicts by the ICTY can be used as an alibi for not prosecuting people with high ranks,” she said.


Crimes committed by the Yugoslav Army’s 549th Brigade in Kosovo villages, according to the Humanitarian Law Centre

  1. Bela Crkva, March 1999: 65 Albanian civilians killed
  2. Celina, March 1999: 81 Albanian civilians killed
  3. Mala Krusa, March 1999: 115 Albanian civilians killed
  4. Velika Krusa, March 1999: 204 Albanian civilians killed
  5. Trnje, March 1999: 36 Albanian civilians killed
  6. Landovica, March 1999: 17 Albanian civilians killed
  7. Ljubidza Has, April 1999: 15 Albanian civilians killed
  8. Meja i Korenica, April 1999: 352 Albanian civilians killed