Warcrimes experts find bodies in Croatia

GOSPIC, Apr 19, 2000 -- (Reuters) United Nations war crimes experts investigating alleged mass killings of Serb civilians around Gospic in 1991 said on Tuesday they had found human remains at a site believed to be a mass grave.

Steve Chambers, leader of a team sent by the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY), told reporters human remains were found at Obradovic Varos on the outskirts of Gospic.

He declined to say how many bodies had been dug up but said "more than one". All remains will later be examined by forensic experts and pathologists, he added.

Hours earlier, Croatia's Deputy Justice Minister Ranko Marijan confirmed Croatian and UN experts had formally launched an investigation into the events that took place at the outset of Croatia's war for independence against rebel Serbs.

Gospic is a small town in central Croatia that lay on the frontline against Serbs during the war. The ICTY team arrived there a week ago to conduct a preliminary investigation.

A Reuters photographer on the scene said the tribunal's investigators had set up camp in shell-pocked Obradovic Varos and were busy inside a yard of a destroyed house, working under heavy Croatian police guard.

"I can tell you that the investigation has formally started, with Croatian and tribunal officials working in parallel and cooperating on the ground," Marijan told Reuters.

At the same time citizens of Gospic, angered by the investigation, were signing a protest petition, while several war veteran groups called a mass rally for Wednesday.

Marijan could not say how long the investigation would last. But if there was evidence of crime, suspects were likely to be tried by Croatian courts, he said.

It would be the first time that the tribunal allows trials on home territory of crimes it has investigated.

"Under our constitutional law the tribunal should have the jurisdiction, but given the recent talks between the government and the chief prosecutor... it is not unlikely that the war crimes cases are tried in Croatia," Marijan said.

"It is in the vital interest of Croatia and its citizens that the suspects stand trial here," he said, adding that a media blackout imposed by Croatian and tribunal officials will soon be lifted.

The ICTY is searching for evidence that dozens of Serb civilians were killed by Croatian police and army in autumn 1991.

At least three former Croatian military officials have already offered their testimony to the tribunal.

The new center-left government allowed excavations two weeks ago and pledged full cooperation with the tribunal, reversing the nationalist policy of late President Franjo Tudjman.

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