By Harry de Quetteville in Berlin and Malcolm Moore in Rome
Serb prisoners had their internal organs removed and sold by ethnic Albanians during the Kosovo war, according to allegations in a new book by the world's best known war crimes prosecutor.
Carla Del Ponte, who stepped down in January as chief prosecutor at the Hague tribunal for crimes committed in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, said investigators found a house suspected of being a laboratory for the illegal trade.
Carla Del Ponte: allegation
A senior adviser to Hashim Thaci, Kosovo's prime minister and a leading member of the Kosovo Liberation Army which is accused of benefiting from the trade, yesterday denied the allegations.
"These are horrible things even to imagine," said Bekim Collaku. "But this is a product of her [Miss Del Ponte's] imagination."
Miss Del Ponte reports that the allegations were made by several sources, one of whom "personally made an organ delivery" to an Albanian airport for transport abroad, and "confirmed information directly gathered by the tribunal".
According to the sources, senior figures in the Kosovo Liberation Army were aware of the scheme, in which hundreds of young Serbs were allegedly taken by truck from Kosovo to northern Albania where their organs were removed. Miss Del Ponte provides grim details of the alleged organ harvesting, and of how some prisoners were sewn up after having kidneys removed.
"The victims, deprived of a kidney, were then locked up again, inside the barracks, until the moment they were killed for other vital organs. In this way, the other prisoners were aware of the fate that awaited them, and according to the source, pleaded, terrified, to be killed immediately," Miss Del Ponte writes.
The claims in The Hunt: Me and War Criminals have renewed tensions between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo, which declared independence two months ago. In it, the Swiss ex-prosecutor reveals how her efforts to bring alleged war criminals to justice were stymied by lack of co-operation from all sides - Serb, Albanian and even Nato. But it is her report of the organ traffic that has caused most shock, even in a region long hardened to horror.
Vladan Batic, Serbia's former justice minister, said: "If her allegations are true, then this is the most monstrous crime since the times of Mengele, and it must be made a priority, not only of the domestic judiciary but also of the Hague Tribunal." The book reports a visit by Hague tribunal investigators to a house south of the Albanian town of Burrel where they found traces of blood across a wide area, as well as medical equipment.
"The investigators found pieces of gauze, a used syringe and two plastic IV bags encrusted with mud and empty bottles of medicine, some of which was of a muscle relaxant often used in surgical operations," she writes. However, she concludes that the finds do not amount to sufficient proof for a war crimes tribunal. In Belgrade, the Serbian capital, an association of families of Serbs still listed as missing since the Kosovo war, said it would sue Miss Del Ponte, alleging that she had failed to act over the alleged organ-farming scandal. Serbia's war crimes office announced it had opened its own investigation.
The book has also prompted concern in Switzerland, where it has been criticised for tarnishing the country's celebrated neutrality, particularly as Miss Del Ponte has been named as the Swiss ambassador to Argentina.
In Belgrade, Natasha Kandic, the highly respected head of the investigative Humanitarian Law Centre, said ordinary Serbs "welcome the publication of this book" but said allegations of organ-smuggling were "rumours". "I talked to her many times, she never told me about this," said Miss Kandic.