U.S. soldier testifies in shooting death of ethnic Albanian

GNJILANE, Yugoslavia (AP) - An Army sergeant testified Monday that he shot at an ethnic Albanian last year in Kosovo - a killing blamed on three Serbs.

Testimony in the trial of the father and his two sons ended with Sgt. Robert Black describing the July 1999 gun battle. At the request of French judge Patrice de Charette, the court traveled to this southeastern town to show where he and other American snipers were deployed.

Reporters were not allowed inside the heavily guarded building, but several people who were present said the soldier repeated statements he gave Army investigators detailing how he fired at an ethnic Albanian who had been shooting at U.S. troops.

''I noticed a man in the shed firing at the tower. I fired with my M203, 40mm high-explosive rounds,'' said the written statement by Black that was read before the U.N. court last month. ''The second round exploded inside the shed and I kept up small, suppressive fire.''

United Nations officials say Afrim Gagica was in the shed when he was killed.

Black is not expected to face charges since the rules of engagement at the time allowed peacekeepers to fire in self defense.

The case against Mirolub ''Mirko'' Momcilovic, 60, and his sons Jugoslav, 32, and Boban, 25, has dragged on for more than a year, and is considered a test of whether Kosovo's embryonic, internationally monitored justice system can work.

Although Black's statement provides evidence that could clear the Serbs, in Kosovo's ethnically charged climate international officials close to the case have warned it would be difficult for the ethnic Albanian judges to arrive at an impartial verdict because they have to go back and face their own communities.

De Charette said he and the four ethnic Albanian judges who presided over the case would deliberate and announce the verdict on Tuesday. A simple majority is required to rule on the case.

The United Nations has been embarrassed by the case because information on U.S. soldiers' role in Gagica's death was not released for more than a year, casting doubts on whether Serbs could get a fair trial in Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians constitute the majority.

In the year since NATO troops entered the province, Kosovo's Serbs have come under reprisal attacks by the province's ethnic Albanians, who suffered a crackdown by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's forces. Despite the presence of a NATO-led peacekeeping force and efforts of international officials, deep hatreds remain between the two groups.

The Albanian prosecutor, Sabit Maliqi, dragged out the case, requesting that the court hear as many as possible of the 37 testimonies from U.S. soldiers involved in gunbattles that day. The request to hear more testimonies Monday was rejected.

In his closing remarks, Maliqi claimed the distance from Black's position in the building was too far away from where Gagica allegedly was killed.

Defense lawyer Zivojin Jaknovic closed by saying the testimonies given by 37 U.S. soldiers - consisting mostly of written statements included in a 130-page U.S. Army report - all said Gagica was shot by a U.S. military sniper.

''The U.S. Army doesn't have any reason not to be objective'' about what happened, he said.


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