Albanian American Civic League
P.O. Box 70, 61 Central Ave.
Ossining, NY 10562
Phone: (914) 762-5530 Fax: (914) 762-5102
For Immediate Release
Ossining, New York, July 14, 2001—The story leading up to the discovery of documents on the bodies of Agron, Mehmet, and Ylli Bytyqi in a mass grave in Petrovo Selo, Serbia, began on July 2, when the Albanian American Civic League held a book signing and reception in Yonkers, New York, in honor of General Wesley Clark, NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Europe for the critical role that he played in putting a stop to Slobodan Milosevic’s decade-long genocidal march across Southeast Europe.
During the question-and-answer session that followed General Clark’s address to the 400 people in attendance, members of the Atlantic Battalion (Albanian Americans who fought with the Kosova Liberation Army) appealed to General Clark for help in determining the fate of the missing brothers, who had disappeared without a trace at the end of the war. General Clark promised to initiate an investigation by phoning U.S. Ambassador William Montgomery in Belgrade, which he did on July 3.
On July 4, former Congressman and Civic League chairman Joe DioGuardi received a phone call from Vladimir Radomirovic, an editor at the Serbian Democratic opposition paper, The Reporter. Radomirovic explained that one of the Serbian ministries had leaked him information that a mass grave had been uncovered in Petrovo Selo and that the Bytyqi brothers were believed to be among the bodies. The three were found at the top of a heap of thirteen other bodies. They were the only ones who were blindfolded, their hands tied behind their backs with wire. The bullet holes in their chests indicated that they had been shot at close range. A Serbian court document, dated June 27, 1999, and listing the names of the Bytyqi brothers, was found on one of the bodies. It indicated that Agron, Mehmet, and Ylli Bytyqi had been sentenced to fifteen days in the Proluplje penitentiary, just north of Kosova, for entering Serbia illegally.
Radomirovic told Joe DioGuardi the incredible story of how the Bytyqi brothers ended up in Serbia and eventually were murdered by Serbian authorities. At the end of the war, in June 1999, Agron, Mehmet, and Ylli traveled from Albania to Prizren, having heard reports that their mother, Bahrije, sister, Bukerje, and brother, Fatos, had been killed. But when they arrived in Prizren, they were overjoyed to find them alive.
According to Radomirovic, they learned that their mother’s Roma neighbors– Miroslav
Mitrovic and Ljubija and Vadzit Minushi—had helped protect her, their sister, and their brother during the war. When they met Miroslav Mitrovic and the Minushis, they implored the Bytyqi brothers to escort them to the Serbian border. Because so many Roma had collaborated with the Serbs during the war and were now potential targets for reprisal killings, they were afraid for their lives.
Grateful for what they had done for their family, Agron, Mehmet, and Ylli agreed to help them, and on the morning of June 26 they left Prizren by car and headed for the Serbian border. According to Miroslav Mitrovic, the fateful moment came when they accidentally crossed the border. At a Serbian police checkpoint in the village of Merdare near Podujevo, their Roma neighbors were cleared to enter Serbia, while the Bytyqi brothers were arrested, taken to a court in Kursumlija, tried, and sentenced to fifteen days in prison for entering Serbia without visas.
According to the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade, which has called on the Serbian Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Justice to reveal the truth about the Bytyqi case, Agron, Mehmet, and Ylli were interrogated at the Prokuplje prison by Zoran Stankovic, a local police inspector in charge of cases involving “foreign nationals.” Stankovic told the prison’s warden that he would release the brothers on July 8, four days before their sentence expired. On that day, prison logs indicate that their belongings were returned, including three Kosova Liberation Army nametags, and that at noon they were escorted out of the prison by two plainclothes policemen. An hour after they left, one of the Roma neighbors they had helped, Miroslav Mitrovic, arrived at the prison to visit them, only to learn that the brothers were allegedly en route to the Kosova border. Agron, Mehmet, and Ylli were never seen again. The Law Center appealed to the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs for information concerning their whereabouts several times in the fall of 1999, but received no response.
Vladimir Radomirovic’s story was picked up by Tony Mills of The Times of London, who then sent a correspondent to Serbia to follow the trail (his story will be released on July 15). By the time that Mills phoned Joe DioGuardi, Joe had contacted the U.S. mission in Belgrade, Congressman Ben Gilman, who subsequently put pressure on the Bush administration to pursue the story, and the State Department. As a result, U.S. officials in Belgrade began an investigation and transmitted as much information as they could obtain to the State Department. On July 12, Joe DioGuardi and the Civic League’s Balkan Affairs Adviser Shirley Cloyes met with State Department officials and urged them to immediately contact Ahmet Bytyqi, the father of the three brothers, who lives in New York, because they did not want him to learn about the fate of his sons in the press. The State Department assured them that their Consular Affairs Bureau, following existing protocols related to U.S. citizens who disappear abroad, would do so immediately. Meanwhile, DioGuardi phoned the elder Bytyqi to say that he would do everything possible to uncover the truth. DioGuardi also called Arber Muriqi, the head of the Atlantic Battalion, to inform him about the results of the investigation into the Bytyqis’ disappearance.
It will take several days, and perhaps weeks, before forensic evidence verifies the identity of the bodies. But in the interim, this tragedy raises several questions about whether the new Serbian government of Vojislav Kostunica, in an effort to ensure that Serbia would be granted large sums of foreign aid, concealed evidence from the public, from the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, and from nongovernmental organizations working to determine the fate of the missing. The tragedy also highlights the stain on the West for failing to use its leverage to secure the release of the Albanian prisoners of war, who were illegally transported to Serbia in violation of the Geneva Conventions in June 1999.
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