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Helsinki group accuses Serbian forces of human rights breaches

By JONATHAN S. LANDAY

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Serbian forces have committed massive human rights abuses in the war in Croatia, including atrocities, massacres of at least 200 Croatian civilians and unarmed fighters and the disappearances of more than 5,000 others, said an international human rights report released Thursday.

'The abuses ... include ... summary executions of civilians; the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force against civilian targets; the torture and mistreatment of detainees; disappearances and the taking of hostages,' said the report by New York-based Helsinki Watch.

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Other abuses included 'the forced displacement and resettlement of civilian populations; and the killing of journalists covering the war,' said the report, which was sent Tuesday to communist President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Yugoslav Army chief Gen. Blagoje Adzic, the acting federal defense minister.

Milosevic's regime and the Yugoslav army have been backing Serbian rebels in the conquest of areas of Croatia in which the bulk of its 580, 000-strong Serbian minority lives. Serbs refuse to reside in an independent Croatia because of fears of persecution.

There was no immediate reaction from the Yugoslav army or Serbia to the report, the most extensive of several recent independent inquiries into human rights violations in the nearly seven-month-old conflict.

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Independent experts contend Croatian forces have also committed numerous atrocities and massacres. Helsinki Watch said a report it is preparing on Croatian abuses would be presented in the near future to right-wing Croatian President Franjo Tudjman.

The organization said that most independent observers believe at least 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict, with civilians accounting for approximately half of the total.

'We call upon you to investigate the abuses ... and to punish those responsible for them,' said the report, which took the form of a letter to Milosevic and Adzic.

Helsinki Watch, which monitors compliance with the 1975 international Helsinki accords on human rights, said it held Milosevic's regime responsible for the conduct of Croatia's Serbian rebels and those of three Serbia-based nationalist paramilitary groups it alleged were formed with the republic's assistance.

'We hold the Yugoslav Peoples Army and the (Serbia-controlled) federal Yugoslav government responsible for the conduct of these groups as well,' the report said, contending they were armed and are overseen by the federal military.

The report, based on interviews and other research by Helsinki Watch investigators, documented 14 incidents over the past five months in which it said Serbian forces massacred at least 200 Croatian civilians and unarmed fighters.

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The incidents included the alleged slayings of at least 43 civilians, including a 72-year-old American woman, and the burning of numerous homes on Dec. 19 in the central Croatian hamlets of Hum and Vocin as Serbian forces withdrew in the face of a Croatian offensive.

The report quoted survivors as blaming the Beli Orlovi -- Serbo-Croat for the White Eagles -- one of the three Serbia-based nationalist paramilitary organizations. It said some of the victims were burned alive after being chained up and tortured, while others were killed with axes or gunshots.

One of the dead included a Serb believed killed for trying to aid a Croatian couple who were set afire after being chained to a table, the report said.

Helsinki Watch said it had 'reason to believe that many Croatian men, both civilians and combatants who had laid down their arms, were summarily executed by Serbian forces' after they captured Vukovar on Nov. 18 following a three month siege that left the eastern town in ruins.

The allegation contrasted sharply with numerous guarantees the Yugoslav army gave for the safety of civilians and Croatian fighters who surrendered in Vukovar.

The report said that at least 3,000 prisoners, including civilians and wounded, captured by the army in Vukovar remain missing and many 'are feared to have been the victims of extrajudicial executions.'

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The report said Helsinki Watch had documented the disappearances from other Serbian-controlled areas of more than 2,000 people since July.

Hundreds of others were incarcerated and subjected to beatings and torture in approximately 36 detention centers in Serbia, Bosnia- Hercegovina, and in Krajina, Croatia's largest rebel Serbian enclave.

Among other charges, Helsinki Watch said Serbian forces:

-- Are 'responsible for the displacement of thousands of persons ... in order to create purely Serbian regions in areas that are otherwise of mixed population.'

-- Were or may have been responsible for the deaths of nine of the 22 domestic and foreign journalists killed in the conflict, and

-- Forcibly mobilized Serbs and members of Serbia's ethnic minorities opposed to the war.

Finally, it accused Milosevic's communist regime of persisting in the repression of the ethnic Albanian majority in Serbia's nominally autonomous province of Kosovo, and surpressing free speech, and opposition and anti-war activities throughout Serbia.

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