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US House presses Serbia on murders of three US brothers

U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (Thomas Altfather Good/WikiCommons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The U.S. House of Representatives has unanimously passed a resolution demanding that Serbia “fully investigate” the killings of three U.S. citizens whose bodies were discovered in a mass grave in Serbia in 2001 after they went to Kosovo to fight alongside ethnic Albanian rebels against Belgrade’s rule.

“Let’s be clear: If Serbia wants to join the West and its institutions, they must deal with their past and prosecute those responsible for war crimes,” Representative Eliot Engel, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a sponsor of the resolution, said on October 22.

“I encourage our [European Union] friends to hold Serbia to this standard when considering Serbia’s candidacy,” he added.

Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi were all in their 20s when they traveled to Kosovo from New York State in 1999 to join Kosovo rebels fighting the forces of then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

They were arrested after crossing an administrative border into Serbia on June 23, 1999, two weeks after hostilities in the Kosovo war had ended. They were later shot dead execution-style while in the custody of a special Serbian police unit.

Less than a year after Milosevic’s ouster in October 2000, the brothers’ remains were discovered in a mass grave on the site of a special police unit base in the village of Petrovo Selo in eastern Serbia.

No one has been convicted in connection with the slaying of the Chicago-born brothers. In 2012, a Serbian war crime court acquitted two former policemen of involvement in their deaths, citing insufficient evidence to convict.

U.S. officials have continued to pressure Belgrade over the case, imposing sanctions on a former senior Serbian police official who served as a commander of a camp where the three brothers were killed, and have called on current Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to bring the case to resolution to help ease tensions between the neighboring Balkan states.

Under Vucic, Belgrade has attempted to balance relations between the West while maintaining ties with close traditional ally Russia. The EU has linked Serbia’s potential membership with its demands that Belgrade normalize ties with Kosovo, which broke away from Serbia following the 1999 NATO-led war.

Promise To Deliver Justice

Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but it has not been recognized by Belgrade, Russia, and five EU nations. The United States and more than 110 other countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence.

In June 2015, Vucic promised to deliver “justice” in the case and said Serbia “will do its job” in regard to the matter, which has been a sticking point in U.S.-Serbian relations.

“We’ll deliver on that issue, not because it’s a huge bilateral issue for us and [the] U.S., or a big stumbling block in front of us, but because that would be a very just solution,” Vucic during a visit to Washington.

However, Engel said that Vucic “promised me three years ago that his government would bring the murderers to justice. But this hasn’t happened. In fact, there isn’t even a serious criminal investigation under way.”

“This is appalling. And sadly, it’s part of a pattern we see with Serbian war criminals responsible for crimes against the people of Kosovo,” Engel added.

Serbia’s War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office told RFE/RL it is investigating the killings of the Bytyqi brothers by “collecting evidence necessary to establish the identity of the perpetrator.”

Fatos Bytyqi, a brother of the slain men, has accused Goran Radosavljevic, a former senior Serbian police official who served as a commander at the camp where the three men were held, of ordering their killings.

In December 2018, Washington imposed sanctions on Radosavljevic, saying he was “credibly implicated” in the murders.

Radosavljevic, a political ally of Vucic, has denied involvement in the slayings.

“I am not worried. They have adopted those resolutions before. I am tired of commenting,” he told RFE/RL on October 23.

“I am clean, and I have no reasons to be afraid. I was never afraid,” said Radosavljevic, who says he is now a consultant at a firm in Belgrade and a member of Vucic’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS).

Kosovo’s outgoing prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj, called the U.S. House’s action “good news, not only for this family, but also for the prosecution of Serbian power crimes committed in Kosovo.”

He wrote on Facebook that the brothers’ killings were crimes “committed against the family, the people of Kosovo, but also the entire history of Albanians, the struggle for liberation, and the sacrifice for freedom.”