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Bosnian Serb Strategy "Defensive"

Former army official maintains forces were unable to mount strategic offensives.
By Rachel Irwin
  • Radovan Radinovic in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)
    Radovan Radinovic in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)

The Bosnian Serb military strategy during the 1992-1995 war was defensive and not “aggressive”, a military expert testifying on behalf of former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic told the Hague tribunal this week.

 “It was a defensive strategy and formulated as such, so as to only to be able to defend the people and territory of Republika Srpska….the grouping of forces, their deployment, and assets in their possession were completely useless for a so called strategic offensive,” said defence witness Radovan Radinovic.

“The supreme command did not have under its control appropriate military forces for manifesting its influence….it was exclusively about defence, never offensive action,” Radinovic held various high-ranking positions in the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, before retiring in 1993 with the rank of lieutenant-general. He has testified as a defence witness in several other trials at the tribunal.

He continued that “it is not only unfounded but ridiculous to say that the [Bosnian Serb army] was an aggressive force. They had absolutely no resources to commit aggression.”

Radinovic clarified that he was using the term aggression in a military sense, not a legal one.

Prosecutors allege that Karadzic, the president of Bosnia's self-declared Republika Srpska, RS, from 1992 to 1996, is responsible for crimes of genocide, persecution, extermination, murder and forcible transfer which "contributed to achieving the objective of the permanent removal of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb-claimed territory".

He is also accused of planning and overseeing the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that left nearly 12,000 people dead, as well as the massacre of more than 7,000 men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995. Karadzic was arrested in Belgrade in July 2008 after 13 years on the run.

The accused, who represents himself in the courtroom, asked the witness to explain the “strategic goals of all three warring parties” in Bosnia.

“The Serb and Croat sides to the conflict wanted to preserve and defend what they considered as their own ethnic territory,” Radinovic said. “It is debatable whether that was justified or not, to consider their ethnic territory in that way, but that is what they believed and they defended it. The Muslim side had as its strategic goal to preserve the entire Bosnia Herzegovina and that could not be done without defeating militarily the other two sides,” he continued.

“How did that impact on the Muslim choice of military strategy?” Karadzic asked.

“It was by definition offensive, but in terms of means and resources, their strategy was too ambitious for the resources they had. So they kept trying to involve the foreign factor to wage war on their side, which eventually happened,” Radinovic said, in an apparent reference to international intervention.

He said that if the “Muslim side” had had the military strength to achieve its goals, then the “Serbian side would have lost”, reiterating that the methods of warfare used by the Bosnian Serb army were “absolutely defensive.”

Karadzic then turned to the city of Sarajevo. As supreme commander of both the civilian government and the army, he is accused of deliberately sniping and shelling the city’s civilian population in order to spread terror among them.

Karadzic asked the witness to explain his conclusions about proportional and disproportional artillery fire.

“In the military doctrine as far as I was able to study it, there are no empiric criteria from which we could determine if fire was proportionate or not,” Radinovic said. “So whenever someone claims that fire was disproportionate, it is a judgement call, it is a value judgment. It is not objective. There are no criteria to determine how many shells must be fired in order for the fire to be disproportionate.”

The accused then asked about the responsibility of warring parties towards civilians.

“There was responsibility to civilians on all sides,” the witness said. “The military commander is duty bound to evacuate civilians from the zone of combat where they could be in physical danger. So they have to remove civilians.

“As for civilians of the opposite side, the military commander must not make them a military target if the disposition of the enemy forces allows him to do so,” he continued. “That means, he may not target civilians that are physically separated from enemy forces.”

Karadzic followed up by asking what responsibility the commander of “enemy forces” had towards their own civilians.

“The military commander had a duty to make it impossible to abuse the civilian population for military purposes. That means that civilian buildings may not be used for military purposes if they want them to be excluded, to not be a target. However, if a civilian building is used to house firing positions, armed personnel - from that moment on the building becomes a legitimate military target. Each commander has the obligation to refrain from using the civilian buildings for military purposes if that’s possible. The question is, was that possible given the circumstances,” Radinovic responded.

During the cross-examination, prosecuting lawyer Hildegard Uertz-Retzlaff asked about his conclusions that “Serbs only took territory where they were in the majority”. She said this wasn’t correct and gave as examples the municipalities of Zvornik, Brcko and Foca.

“I said there cannot be an absolutely justified solution,” Radinovic said. “There is no absolute justice. There will always be a chunk of territory populated by another ethnic community. You can see that I was in favour of a balanced solution. The Serbs established their entity only in territory where they were in the majority, however, there were some exceptions.”

“You very much resent the work of the tribunal, do you not?” Uertz-Retzlaff asked.

“I have my position on everything including this. That is my personal view, my position,” he replied.

The prosecutor then presented the text of a speech the witness gave at a conference in Belgrade in June 2005, where he discussed the indictment against Vojislav Seselj, a Serbian nationalist politician who surrendered to the tribunal in 2003 on war crimes charges. Seselj’s trial took years to complete and the judgement against him is slated for October. (See Seselj Judgement Date Set for October.)

Uertz-Retzlaff said that in the speech, the witness rhetorically asked why Seselj was arrested. He answered his own question by stating that “Seselj is a metaphor for Serbian patriotism and Serbian identity”.

Radinovic went on to say in the speech that he had had the “misfortune” of testifying in defence of “Serbian generals” and that “the Hague tribunal is a powerful means of the West’s extended aggression against our country”.

“That’s your view of the tribunal, right?” Uertz-Retzlaff asked, after reading out the relevant passages.

“That is my view to this day,” Radinovic said.

The prosecutor then turned to a book the witness wrote, entitled "Lies about the Sarajevo Battlefield", published in 2004. She read out a passage where Radinovic asked whether “the Serbs can accept… being named the guilty party for all evils fallen on this territory”.

The witness went on to write, “I was simply unable to bear the knowledge I gained of the guilt of the Muslim side and the so-called international community for the destructive hate… that occurred on both sides of the conflict on Sarajevo battle field.”

“That’s your view today?” Uertz-Retzlaff asked.

“Yes,” Radinovic replied.

The prosecutor then read a passage from the witness’s book which stated that, “I didn’t [title] this book the way I did because I believe Serbs aren’t to blame or because Sarajevo deserved suffering or because I wanted to diminish victims and suffering.”

“You agree that Sarajevo residents suffered and that crimes were committed against them by the [Bosnian Serb army]?” the prosecutor asked.

“I agree relatively. But it’s not only the fault of [the Bosnian Serb army]. It’s also the fault of the [Bosnian government] army which misused civilian buildings and did not protect civilians, and provoked operations from areas where civilians were and in that way contributed to the suffering of civilians,” Radinovic said.

Uertz-Retzlaff then read from a portion in his book which stated that “it is also only rational to assume that witnesses were coached how to testify by the prosecution and instructed to qualify the Serbian side as the aggressor”.

“Is it your evidence that evidence collected by the prosecution was manipulated in this way?” she asked.

“There certainly were manipulations. An old lady who testifies says she was hit by a sniper – how can she tell what was a sniper and what was an ordinary bullet from a rifle? She was instructed to say she was hit by sniper,” Radinovic contended.

Uertz-Retzlaff pointed out that for a victim, it doesn’t make a difference whether they are shot by a “sniper rifle or a marksman”.

“Of course it doesn’t matter! I’m saying that the victim was instructed to say that it was the result of sniper fire. I have full compassion for that victim,” Radinovic said.

Uertz-Retzlaff asked if he was aware that “people use all sorts of terminology in relation to shooting from a far-away distance” and that an ordinary person would not be able to say what a sniper is “in military terminology”.

“An ordinary person cannot,” Radinovic maintained. “They say sniper shooters because they were instructed to say that. It would be more natural to say they were hit by a bullet and not a sniper.”

The trial continues next week.

Rachel Irwin is IWPR’s Senior Reporter in The Hague. 

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