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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Says Russians Joined in Atrocities

The U.S. Defense Department confirmed reports that Russian mercenaries fought in Kosovo alongside Serbian forces, and said that an international war crimes investigation would examine reports that they were involved in atrocities against Albanian civilians.

"We certainly know that Russians participated, Russian volunteers, mercenaries, we believe, did participate with paramilitary and other Serbian forces," said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon, when asked to comment Tuesday on a report in the U.S. newspaper Newsday that dozens of Russian volunteers had taken part in the killing of hundreds of ethnic Albanians and the destruction of towns and villages around Prizren in southern Kosovo.

"I do not have verification that there were units or groups of the size that Newsday reports," Bacon said. "But we do believe that there was some Russian participation."

The Guardian newspaper in Great Britain on Wednesday also backed up Newsday's allegations. Quoting Kosovo Albanian witnesses, The Guardian reported that Russian paramilitaries were part of an execution gang that shot at least four civilians in the village of Korenica.

There has been no official Russian response to the allegations.

The Guardian reported that Human Rights Watch has also been collecting reports of Russian paramilitaries being involved in ethnic cleansing.

In the days immediately after NATO began bombing Serbia in March, Russian politicians expressed outrage. Some - including the Communists and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia - openly called for volunteers to travel to Kosovo to fight for Serbia.

Russian media have covered some of the volunteers' exploits. Komsomolskaya Pravda two weeks ago reported on a so-called "Russian battalion" - which it said also included Serbs who were rejected as unfit for the Yugoslav Army.

The commander of the battalion, an Israeli citizen and former Soviet citizen named David Ben Ami, was quoted by Komsomolskaya Pravda as saying that their main task was to fight against "Albanian terrorists" with the Kosovo Liberation Army, the guerrilla force that has fought for Kosovo's secession from Serbia-dominated Yugoslavia.At least some volunteers, however, apparently expanded their mission to include atrocities against civilians. According to the Newsday report, which cited Kosovo Albanian witnesses, about 60 Russian mercenaries were involved in an assault on the town of Prizren that left 22 civilians dead.

Residents of Prizren said that when German troops arrived in the town on June 13, the Russian volunteers again showed up - in two buses and in a Mercedes painted camouflage brown - to taunt NATO and the town's Albanians. After the German troops brought up an artillery piece and ordered the Russian volunteers out, they left.

An unidentified German officer with NATO's peacekeeping forces confirmed that account to Newsday.

Newsday, citing only "Newsday sources," reported that Russian volunteers were also in "the front line of killing" in the villages of Velika Kursa, Pirane, Samodraza, Korisa, Bela Cirkva, Pusto Selo and Drenovac.

According to the testimonies of Albanian refugees collected by the U.S. State Department, at least 100 men were executed in Velika Krusa, while possibly many more civilians were executed in Bela Cirkva. Atrocities in those two villages are among those cited in the Hague Tribunal's indictment of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for crimes against humanity.

Bacon said that the reports reaching the Pentagon from the KLA during the conflict indicated "very small numbers" of Russians were involved in ethnic cleansing and battling the KLA.

Bacon confirmed that there had been reports "of some Russian deaths."

The exact nature of the involvement of Russian mercenaries "is something that I'm sure will be looked into by war crimes investigators who are now going into Kosovo in considerable numbers," he added.

The talk of Russian mercenary involvement - and the possible inclusion of Russian citizens in a future war crimes indictment - comes at a delicate stage in the fragile rebuilding of diplomatic and military links between NATO and Russia following the Kosovo conflict.

NATO and Russia have agreed that 3,600 Russian troops will join KFOR, the Kosovo Force of peacekeepers, most of them in a southern sector of the province commanded by German forces.

Washington is being careful, so far, not to link the behavior of Russian volunteers with the reputation of the Russian KFOR force.

"When the Russian forces arrive as part of KFOR, we expect them to be totally fair and professional in their dealings with both Serbs and Kosovo Albanians, as they have been in Bosnia and where there have been very stalwart and successful members of the peacekeeping force," Bacon said. "I anticipate that the Russian troops coming to Kosovo will be exactly the same."

But Newsday said earlier this week that German commander Brigadier General Fritz von Korff told Western reporters he would handle the Russian peacekeepers warily.

"We will have to think very carefully about where we will put them," Korff told reporters. "I can only say one thing - I will certainly not deploy them in Prizren."

Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said Wednesday that Russia could dispatch peacekeepers to Kosovo as early as Friday.

"We are ready to send them at any time of day or night," he told reporters after addressing a closed session of the State Duma.

Russia's upper chamber of parliament, the Federation Council, is due to meet Friday to consider President Boris Yeltsin's request for the peacekeeping mission in Kosovo.

Under the Constitution the Federation Council must approve any dispatch of troops abroad. The request is expected to be approved.

Russia rushed about 200 paratroopers from Bosnia to Kosovo after the suspension of NATO's 11-week bombing campaign. The troops occupied the airport at Pristina, Kosovo's capital, before NATO's own troops entered the province.

Sergeyev said the peacekeeping operation would cost about $60 million annually.

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who briefed the Duma along with Sergeyev on Wednesday, said the funding would come from the state budget.

The Russian peacekeepers will be deployed within the U.S., German and French zones of responsibility in Kosovo but will remain under Russian, not NATO, command.

The alliance rejected Moscow's request for its own zone in Kosovo, saying this would effectively lead to the partition of the province into ethnic Albanian and Serbian parts.