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Bosnian Commander “Could Have Controlled” Mujahedin

Former UNPROFOR commander testifies that defendant was a cool, calm thinker who was in a position to restrain subordinates.
By Alison Freebairn

The commander of the Bosnian Army’s Third Corps could have taken steps to prevent war crimes carried out by foreign mujahedin fighters if he had chosen to, according to a top international general.


The British Army’s Major-General Alistair Duncan, who headed the United Nations Protectorate Force, UNPROFOR, during a six-month tour of duty in Bosnia in 1993, was appearing as a prosecution witness at the trial of ex-General Enver Hadzihasanovic and former colonel Amir Kubura.


The pair – who were in charge of the Third Corps and the Seventh Muslim Brigade respectively – are the highest ranking Bosnian Army figures to be indicted by The Hague to date.


Hadzihasanovic and Kubura have pleaded not guilty to charges of bearing superior criminal responsibility for a series of crimes committed during the war, including the murder of Bosnian Serb and Croat civilians and the killing of Bosnian Croat prisoners of war.


The prosecution claim that the Hadzihasanovic knew of the activities of foreign mujahedin fighters – who were greatly feared by the non-Muslim inhabitants of central Bosnia – but failed to take any steps to control them.


However, the defence argues that the mujahedin were operating outside the command of the Bosnian army and without its knowledge, and insist that Hadzihasanovic and Kubura are not responsible for the foreign fighters’ actions.


Duncan, who gave his testimony over two days, spoke of his “huge respect” for Hadzihasanovic’s abilities as a military commander.


Prosecution counsel Ekkehard Withopf asked the witness, “You had around 20 meetings with [the defendant] over six months. What was your impression of him?”


Duncan said, “My assessment was of an extremely intelligent and capable commander. His headquarters were very well organised, he had excellent communications and staff at his disposal.


“In the British Army we have a saying that a good commander is at peace with himself, and he certainly seemed to be that. He was a cool, calm thinker who was in complete control of his subordinates and never appeared to be stressed.”


The witness admitted that he had even coined a personal nickname for Hadzihasanovic during his six months in charge of the British battalion. “I called him the ‘Cunning Fox’, and this rather caught on within Britbat, and I do hope it didn’t leak out at the time,” he smiled.


“I think it was the right nickname. A fox is clever, fit, very active and capable – and that was [Hadzihasanovic].”


When asked if Hadzihasanovic was the sort of commander who would be aware of events and conditions on the ground, Duncan replied, “He was kept very much up to date with what was happening on the ground. There was a system within Third Corps to ensure that everyone knew exactly what was going on.”


The witness likened the problem of the mujahedin in central Bosnia to a thorn in the side of the controlling Bosnian army, and insisted that the issue could have been dealt with decisively by the corps and its commander Hadzihasanovic.


Duncan told the court that “it was never entirely clear” whether foreign mujahedin were operating in the Third Corps-controlled area of central Bosnia, but said that “if they had not existed, someone would have had to have invented them”.


The threat of the mujahedin, he explained, “had a marvellous effect” on Croat and Serb families who had been living in the area before the war broke out.


“An army doesn’t win a battle by defeating people’s bodies but by conquering their minds, and [the mujahedin] were a very effective and extremely useful propaganda tool for the Third Corps to use,” he said.


Aside from their usefulness in scaring the non-Muslim civilian population out of the path of the Bosnian army, there was no reason to believe that the force was purely an imaginary one, Duncan said, explaining that “there were reports of mujahedin activities on the ground”.


When asked by the prosecution counsel what the Third Corps’s response had been to allegations that it was using mujahedin units, Duncan replied, “Nobody ever admitted to commanding them. However, there were references to mujahedin units being ‘sorted out’ in Travnik.


“But I believe that the planning was controlled at the highest level of the Third Corps,” the witness alleged.


In his cross examination, defence counsel Stephane Bourgon took the British Army officer to task for refusing to meet the defendants’ representatives before taking the stand, and accused him of not having a grasp of the full complexity of Hadzihasanovic’s position in 1993.


He also criticised Duncan for passing comment on the mujahedin when, by his own admission, he had seen none during his tour of duty in Bosnia – only local Muslims trying to dress like their overseas counterparts.


Following the defence’s intervention, presiding judge Jean-Claude Antonetti asked the witness directly, “Did the Third Corps have the means to resolve the problem of the mujahedin?”


Duncan replied that, in his opinion, this was the case. “I believe it was a matter of priorities,” he said. “If you are fighting on a number of fronts and a major event occurs, you may have to pull that thorn from your side so you can carry on with the rest of your battles.


“They had the means to pull out that thorn [the mujahedin]. If they had really wanted to do so, it could have been moved up [their] list of priorities.”


The trial continues.


Alison Freebairn is an IWPR editor in London.