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Bodies found at suspected war grave

Forensic staff take away a body from a suspected mass grave in Knin
Forensic staff take away a body from a suspected mass grave in Knin  

KNIN, Croatia -- Forensic teams excavating a suspected mass grave have unearthed at least six bodies from a site believed to contain the remains of hundreds of ethnic Serbs.

It is unclear exactly how many bodies were retrieved on Tuesday, during what was the first day of excavations at the site in Knin, some 300 kilometres (188 miles) south of the capital, Zagreb.

The site, which has been sealed off by local police, is thought to contain the bodies of victims of a 1995 government offensive.

The state-run news agency HINA said the bodies would be transported to Zagreb for identification. The exhumations are expected to last at least a month.

Knin was the hotbed of rebel Serbs' attempts to prevent Croatia's independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

Croatian troops rolled into Knin, the "capital" of the rebel Serb republic, during Zagreb's Operation Storm on August 5, 1995. Most local Serbs fled across the border before the onslaught.

According to human rights groups, the operation left behind some 400 casualties, mostly elderly civilians.

Croatia claims none of those buried in Knin were victims of war crimes but "collateral casualties," interred according to international conventions.

The probe was announced as a joint operation by U.N. war crimes tribunal and Croatian forensic experts.

Retired Croatian general Ivan Cermak, who commanded the Knin area after Operation Storm, has already been interrogated by the tribunal.

Last week, he told a local newspaper that there were no mass graves there.

"We had tried to identify all the dead, and buried them in separate graves according to international conventions. No war crimes or ethnic cleansing took place there," Cermak said.

"I am glad they have decided to dig. They will see who is in those graves and put an end to the mass grave story."

U.N. workers began marking the area around the Knin cemetery last week where the bodies were believed to have been hastily buried.

Most of the graves bear a wooden cross engraved with the letters "N.N.," the Croatian abbreviation for an unidentified corpse.

The dig has raised hopes among survivors of at last discovering the fate of their missing relatives.

"I only want to know if my son's grave is here," said Djurdja Drpa, 65.

"I last saw him alive on August 5, 1995 and haven't heard anything since," she told Reuters.

Mara, 62, is also looking for her son. Unlike Drpa, she and her son Vinko separated when she joined a long column of refugees fleeing across the mountains to the Serb-controlled territory in neighbouring Bosnia.

"When we reached Bosnia, someone told me Vinko had been killed, but I had no way of finding out," she said.

Two years later a Serb human rights group showed her what it said were photographs taken by the U.N. after the operation of unidentified victims.

"The picture did not convince me. I want to see the remains for myself. If he was buried there and they left his boots on, that's what I will recognise. They were special, hand-made," she said.

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International War Crimes Tribunal
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