July 21, 2000US troops in Kosovo trial flap
GNJILANE, Yugoslavia (AP) -- The murder trial of a Serb man and his two sons, accused of killing an ethnic Albanian in a shootout in Kosovo, took a dramatic turn Friday when the trial judge said American troops confirmed they killed two people at the scene that day.
Judge Patrice De Charette said the admission was contained in a 130-page report submitted by U.S. authorities Friday to the court trying Mirolub "Mirko" Momcilovic, 60, and his sons Jugoslav, 32, and Boban, 25. They are accused of killing Afrim Gagica on July 10, 1999, in a confrontation in southeastern Kosovo.
De Charette, who is French, would not give further details of the report, saying it would be admitted into evidence Monday. However, a U.N. official familiar with the case said the Americans now confirm that they -- and not the three Serbs -- killed Gagica. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
U.N. and NATO officials in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, refused comment, saying it was a matter for the U.N.-run court. U.N. spokeswoman Susan Manuel, summarizing a report from de Charette, said the Americans testified that one man had been firing at an observation tower where U.S. soldiers were stationed.
The armed man then fled into a shed, pursued by an American soldier who fired two explosive rounds near the building and "successive rounds into the shed door," Manuel said. U.N. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Gagica was killed at a shed.
It was unclear why the U.S. Army waited so long to provide information in a case that has dragged on for more than a year.
The case emerged at a time when key figures in the U.S. Congress were objecting to establishment of an international criminal court, arguing American soldiers on peacekeeping missions might someday be charged with offenses committed in the line of duty.
On Thursday, the Army asked the court to reconsider the detentions of Momcilovic and his sons because an investigation by the Army's Criminal Investigation Division had uncovered "additional investigative materials."
The U.S. military had already admitted it shot a man in the area that day, Naser Azemi. The military insisted that U.S. troops were attacked and were following the rules of engagement when they killed Azemi in self defense.
In a statement released Thursday, however, the Army said it reopened the investigation after receiving an inquiry from the media, and that it passed on its findings to the court.
"Based on the preliminary findings ..., Task Force Falcon immediately passed the recently developed information to the Gnjilane District Court president for a review of the Momcilovics' detention status," the U.S. European Command said in a statement released in Germany. "Additionally, U.S. Army Europe will conduct a comprehensive systematic review of the circumstances in this matter."
The latest evidence marks another strange chapter in the case against the Momcilovics, which began during the early, often turbulent months of the international peacekeeping mission in Kosovo.
The trial began April 25 and was suspended the following day after the defense asked to introduce a security videotape showing some of the events of the day of the shooting. Although the tape does not indicate who killed Gagica, it shows the elder Momcilovic answering the intercom of his motorcycle repair shop and speaking with a stranger who ultimately demanded that he come out and surrender his weapons.
Gun drawn, a man later identified as Gagica tried to kick the door down as a group of his armed companions looked on. An exchange of gunfire followed. Minutes later, U.S. troops entered the picture.
Although the tape does not show who shot Gagica, human rights observers have long contended that it raises reasonable doubt that the Momcilovics were responsible. The court refused to accept the tape into evidence, saying it could not determine whether it had been altered.
Still, the judge allowed the tape to be shown Friday in the shabby courtroom, with thick red curtains and a blue U.N. flag that had a notice stitched on it indicating that the proceedings would be translated into Serbo-Croat, Albanian and English.
The Americans did not testify in the case because the Momcilovics' attorney relied on U.S. military statements taken from the 35 soldiers interviewed. He cited the cost of travel from their base in Germany as another reason for not calling them to the stand.