PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — The remains of 46 ethnic Albanian civilians killed by Serb forces during the 1998-99 Kosovo war and hidden for years in mass graves were handed over to their families Monday.
Arsim Gerxhaliu, head of Kosovo’s forensic department, said a funeral for some of the victims will take place on Wednesday, the 15th anniversary of the killings, in the town of Suva Reka.
The victims were killed in two separate rampages In March 1999 by Serb forces in western Kosovo just days after NATO began a bombing campaign to stop Serbia’s onslaught against separatist ethnic Albanians.
Some of the victims were buried by Serb forces at a military air base near Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, in an attempt to cover up the killings. Other victims were found in mass graves in Kosovo.
Over 1,000 people still remain missing, most of them ethnic Albanians.
In Suva Reka, Serb police in 1999 rounded up members of the Berisha family, locked them in a restaurant and threw hand grenades at them, killing 49 people.
‘‘It is some relief for me that they have been found,’’ said Dashurie Berisha, who had seven relatives among those identified and handed over Monday. ‘‘(Still) the grief remains because they are gone for us.’’
Draped with Albanian flags, the coffins of the victims were lined up under a tent outside the main hospital in Kosovo’s capital of Pristina. Walking carefully between the rows, Florin Berisha stopped by the coffins of his closest relatives.
‘‘Sixteen members of my family are missing, from my grandmother to my first cousin, who was only 8 years old,’’ he said. ‘‘We have identified only six so far and their remains are here. We know nothing of the others.’’
The killings sprees in Suva Reka and in the western village of Mala Krusa were among the worst during Kosovo’s war and were a crucial part of the prosecution in a U.N. tribunal that charged top Serbia officials with war crimes in Kosovo.
Identifying and returning the remains of the victims is a key part of the ongoing talks between Kosovo and Serbia. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a move that Serbia still rejects.