BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — A brother of three American citizens slain after fighting in Serbia in 1999 accused the Balkan country's leaders on Tuesday of protecting the killers and refusing to bring them to justice despite repeated pledges to U.S. officials to do so.
The Bytyqi brothers, Ylli, Mehmet and Agron, left their Brooklyn, New York pizza business to fight with ethnic Albanian rebels against Serbia's rule in Kosovo. They were arrested at the end of the clashes when they strayed into central Serbia. Their bodies were discovered in a mass grave in 2001.
Their brother Fatos Bytyqi, who was in Belgrade to inquire about the progress of the legal case, told The Associated Press in an interview that Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has repeatedly promised American officials that Serbia would solve the case, which has burdened relations between the two countries.
"He promised to our government. He said patience," Bytyqi said. "I say patience for 17 years? This case is not from yesterday. He broke many promises."
There was no immediate reaction from Vucic, but Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said after meeting Bytyqi on Tuesday that the state is "exerting maximal efforts" to solve the case.
Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic acknowledged Tuesday that the case strains relations with the U.S.
"It is a problem because America stands up for its citizens," Dacic said when asked to comment on the Bytyqi case.
The three brothers were believed killed execution-style by special Serb troops in their base in eastern Serbia in July 1999. Their bodies were thrown into a pit that already held dozens of corpses of slain ethnic Albanian civilians — an effort by former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic's authorities to cover up mass murders during the Kosovo war.
Bytyqi said that all evidence his legal team has collected points to the main suspect being former Police Gen. Goran Radosavljevic Guri, who was the commander of the base and is now a close party associate of Vucic. Radosavljevic has denied involvement, saying he was on a hunting trip when the Bytyqi brothers were killed.
Bytyqi alleged that Radosavljevic has been intimidating the witnesses and their families.
"It is about Guri because he is being openly protected by the Serbian government," Bytyqi said. "He is part of SNS (Vucic's party.) If somebody gave up Guri, Guri will give up on them."
"They have the fact who did the crime, who ordered the crime," Bytyqi said. "They have a proof and they have a witness. I don't know what is the interest of the Serbian government to not start the case. I don't see the reason."
U.S. Ambassador Kyle Scott told independent online TV outlet Serbian Insider that he expects the Serbian government to pursue the investigation and solve the case.
"I find it very difficult that nothing has happened to any of the members of this group and that in fact the leader of that unit is now in a position on the executive board of the leading party in this country," he said, apparently referring to Radosalvljevic.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
Associated Press Writer Jovana Gec contributed to this report.