CEOL - Belgrade Says "Skeptical" Of UN Kosovo Death Toll

BELGRADE, Nov 11, 1999 -- (Reuters) A Serbian official said on Wednesday he was "very skeptical" about an announcement that U.N. investigators had exhumed 2,108 corpses in Kosovo and that they expected a much higher final ethnic Albanian death toll.

"I am very skeptical about the figure and about the place where the figure came from," Serbian Deputy Information Minister Miodrag Popovic said by telephone.

He was commenting on a statement by the chief U.N. prosecutor Carla del Ponte to the U.N. Security Council in which she outlined the tribunal's work in Kosovo so far.

The government of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, indicted with four close aides by the U.N. war crimes tribunal in May for alleged war crimes in Kosovo, has always dismissed the tribunal, calling it a political court biased against Serbs.

Thousands of ethnic Albanians were estimated to have died during a Serb crackdown that ended in June when Milosevic accepted a peace plan for Kosovo after weeks of NATO bombing.

Popovic noted that initial estimates from the West of the number killed in Kosovo had been 100,000 and were later reduced.

"It is different later than when they first say something," he said.

Del Ponte said the 2,108 bodies had come from only about a third of 529 grave sites that reportedly contained 4,256 bodies.

A total of 11,334 deaths had been reported to her office to date but not verified, del Ponte said, giving the first concrete figures on the work of the tribunal since forensic teams entered the province with international peacekeeping troops in June.

Popovic did not give his own estimate of the number of dead, but acknowledged that not all those killed in Kosovo were either "terrorists" or died due to the bombs, as the government had said at the time.

He said Serb judges could not verify the figures because they could not inspect the sites, echoing a complaint voiced by the tribunal when it was prevented by the Serbian authorities from investigating alleged massacres before the air strikes.

"Our judiciary doesn't have any access to the alleged sites, so how can we believe in what they say. They act as judge and jury at the same time," Popovic said.

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