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Exhumations Begin in Croatia

April 28, 1998 GMT

VUKOVAR, Croatia (AP) _ Forensic experts started exhumations Tuesday at a grave site expected to yield more than 1,000 bodies in eastern Croatia’s war-devastated city of Vukovar.

``The exhumation is certainly one of the biggest that is, or has been, carried out in Europe,″ said Ivan Grujic, head of a government commission for missing persons.″The whole site has the characteristics of a classic mass grave.″

Hours into the dig alongside a town cemetery, Grujic’s team of experts already unearthed 42 corpses buried in a trench some 3 yards wide and 50 yards long. Most of the bodies were packed in now-tattered black plastic bags, revealing skulls and other bone fragments.

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About 40 more bodies are expected to be unearthed by day’s end and 12 other similar trenches nearby should yield about 1,120 bodies.

The exhumations and identification process will last for up to nine weeks, Grujic said.

The missing persons commission has compiled 937 dossiers of individuals it believes would be positively identified.

Dr. Davor Strinovic, a forensic pathologist in charge of autopsies, said photographs, clothing and other possessions would be laid next to the bodies to improve the chances of identification.

The victims are believed to be mostly Croat soldiers and civilians killed during the October 1991 siege of Vukovar or rounded up and executed by the Yugoslav Army and Serb paramilitary troops after the city’s fall three months later.

Some of the bloodiest fighting in the six-month Serb-Croat war took place in Vukovar. Thousands were killed in the Serb rebellion and the once-picturesque Baroque town was reduced to little more than rubble.

Three former Yugoslav army officers and a local Serb mayor have been indicted for war crimes by the U.N. tribunal over the alleged slaughter of 261 patients from a nearby hospital. The bodies were buried in a mass grave at Ovcara, on the outskirts of Vukovar.

Exhumations in the city were not performed earlier because the area only reverted back to government control in January and required thorough de-mining.