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Comment: Milosevic Insider Details Serbian Crimes

Former Yugoslav intelligence officer provides crucial evidence of Serbian atrocities in eastern Croatia.
By Mirko Klarin

In the second half of 1991, during the war in Croatia, the Yugoslav military's security service, which at that time was led by General Aleksandar Vasiljevic, came into possession of information on crimes committed by paramilitary formations, sometimes with the participation, or in the presence of, regular army units.

Some of the reports from the archives of military security pertaining to specific crimes cited in Slobodan Milosevic's indictment were presented last week before the court.

General Vasiljevic confirmed the authenticity of these reports, adding details based on his personal knowledge of the atrocities.

For some of these crimes, the army security service produced official reports that were forwarded to the General Staff and army prosecutor, and, in the case of crimes involving citizens of Serbia, also to Serbian interior and defence ministries.

This was the case, for example, with the reports pertaining to crimes committed in October and November 1991 in the village of Lovas in the Croatian region of Eastern Slavonija.

Vasiljevic testified that on October 21, 1991, he received a brief from army security that a large group of civilians had been killed in a minefield near Lovas.

Vasiljevic requested and received detailed information which indicated that members of the paramilitary unit Dusan Silni, stationed in Lovas with other security units, detained and interrogated about fifty local villagers, killing four of them in the process.

On the following day, they took thirty Croatian villagers on a "search mission" and forced them to enter a minefield.

Vasiljevic testified that on this occasion mines killed 17 people: 14 villagers and three paramilitaries.

The army security service informed the General Staff, army prosecutor and Serbian ministries of interior affairs and defence - because the offenders were citizens of Serbia.

Vasiljevic could not tell if the ministry of interior affairs ever launched an investigation and whether the perpetrators were identified and punished.

One month later, in the same village, military police discovered the corpses of 23 villagers. They photographed the bodies and informed the interior affairs ministry in Dalj, the seat of government of the self-proclaimed Serbian Autonomous Region of Istocna Slavonija (Eastern Slavonija).

Vasiljevic told the court he could not tell if there was any investigation or trial.

General Vasiljevic also confirmed the authenticity of two official notes containing statements taken by military security officials from two army soldiers, who witnessed crimes against Croatian civilians in the villages of Skabrnja and Nadin, in so-called Kninska Krajina, another formerly Serb-held region of Croatia.

According to the indictment against Milosevic, in October and November of 1991, dozens of civilians were killed in these two villages.

Prosecutor Geoffrey Nice read out several horrendous details from the official notes, which describe cold-blooded murders of old men, women and children.

One paramilitary soldier walked around with a bag full of human ears, then entered a tavern and put one into a drinking glass.

The military security service registered all this, but, once again, Vasiljevic could not tell if there was any official investigation of the crimes committed.

The service had its officers in all army units and General Vasiljevic, as the chief of this agency, should have been the best informed man, not only in army but probably in the whole of former Yugoslavia.

But he says that it was only in January 1993 that he found out about the gravest crime committed in 1991 - the massacre of 200 people at Ovcara farm near Vukovar.

Vasiljevic claimed that this was the first time he ever heard about Ovcara.

He alleged that on this occasion one officer from a special military police unit told him that prisoners from Vukovar hospital - assumed to be members of the Croatian army who threw away their uniforms and disguised themselves as civilians - were taken to Ovcara farm.

When word that something was happening there reached the army command, the officer and several military policemen went there to see what was going on, Vasiljevic said.

When he came close to Ovcara, he heard shots and informed his command.

The command replied, "It is OK, come back, this is not our problem any more."

Vasiljevic also alleged that this officer told him "it was only later that he found out about what happened there, namely, that Vukovar 'territorials' killed around 160 civilians in Ovcara".

In November 1995, three former army officers were indicted by The Hague for the Ovcara massacre.

Vasiljevic testified that he met one of them in 1998, retired general Mile Mrksic, and asked him what happened there on November 20, 1991.

Mrksic, who was the commander of the First Guard Brigade during the Vukovar operation, allegedly replied, " I swear on my children, if I only knew what was going to happen, I would not think of handing them over."

Vasiljevic said that he then asked Mrksic why no report was sent to the army command, and he, allegedly, was told, "When we realised what they had done, we took an oath to keep silent."

According to the indictment and the testimonies heard so far, the Yugoslav army seized some 300 civilians from Vukovar hospital and transported them to Ovcara.

There they were turned over to members of the local territorial defence, a reserve army unit.

They were beaten and molested and then taken out of the hangar in groups and driven away to the place of execution where a mass grave was dug.

Since the territorial defence did not have enough men, they invited some paramilitary forces to help.

On the following day some of these paramilitaries were bragging in public about their role in the massacre.

Their stories, Vasiljevic insisted, never reached military security, and he, as head of the security service, remained uninformed until January 1993.

Due to the position he occupied in the military leadership from the beginning of war until May 1992 - when he fell from grace and was retired - Vasiljevic was included in a list of 15 Milosevic accomplices, that is participants in a joint criminal enterprise in Croatia.

They all remain under investigation, and one of those on the list - Vojislav Seselj - has just been indicted.

After the seven years he spent out of favour - during which he was arrested and placed under investigation - Vasiljevic was brought back into army service in April 1999, at the beginning of NATO air strikes.

By a decree of then president of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, he was appointed deputy head of the army's security service.

After returning to his old position - though one step lower - Vasiljevic once again had to handle army security crime reports - this time dealing with incidents in Kosovo.

The majority of the field reports he received pertained to crimes committed by units of the Serbian interior ministry.

During his testimony last week, Vasiljevic described some of these crimes, specifying the police units that took part in them and naming their commanders.

The Kosovo part of Vasiljevic's testimony saw more evidence - other witnesses have said the same thing - that Milosevic acted through parallel command structures.

According to Vasiljevic's testimony, Milosevic operated in Kosovo through a so-called joint command, headed by his key Kosovo coordinator, the then deputy federal prime minister Nikola Sainovic.

Milosevic exercised control over the military engaged in Kosovo not through the regular chain of command, leading from the General Staff to the units in the field, but indirectly, or using a parallel structure, through Sainovic.

Milosevic, as the supreme commander, issued a decree subordinating all Serbian interior ministry units to the Yugoslav army command.

But in practice, the former operated independently.

Sainovic was in charge of the interior affairs ministry, but he never insisted on the subordination of their units.

Vasiljevic said Milosevic's decree never reached those of them engaged in the field.

When then chief of the General Staff General Dragoljub Ojdanic complained about this to Milosevic, he is said to have replied that "this decree had nothing to do with the Ministry of Interior Affairs of Serbia, but was intended to place the Ministry of Interior Affairs of Montenegro under command of the Yugoslav Army."

It should be mentioned that this happened at a time of growing tension between Milosevic and then president of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic.

When in the middle of May 1999 the military security service submitted to the army command a report describing the crimes committed against civilians in Kosovo, Milosevic convened a meeting of the army and police leadership.

With the exception of the then minister of interior affairs, Vlajko Stojiljkovic, and three key generals - Vlastimir Djordjevic, Obrad Stevanovic and Sreten Lukic - who, according to Vasiljevic, were "best informed about what was going on in Kosovo", the meeting was attended by all the key security figures.

The highest-ranking police official at the gathering was the head of state security service, Rade Markovic.

Before the meeting, military and police were blaming each other for crimes in Kosovo.

The police claimed that the army was responsible for the deaths of some 800 people. The latter countered with military security service reports that the figure was 271.

Then officials from the Serbian interior ministry produced documentation showing the police were responsible for 326 deaths.

These mutual accusations continued at the meeting with Milosevic.

Markovic tried to blame volunteer units, saying they were responsible for murders, looting and other crimes and concluding that such things were inevitable in every war.

According to Vasiljevic's testimony, Milosevic did not comment on the proposal put forward by the army chief General Nebojsa Pavkovic that a special state commission be established to examine what really happened and who was responsible.

Milosevic only said "the problem of volunteers must be addressed" and that "drastic cases" should be dealt with "as soon as possible".

Milosevic also called for problems over cooperation between the army and state security services to be resolved.

And that was all. After the meeting, the generals left the room, and Milosevic remained with Sainovic and Markovic.

At the beginning of cross-examination - which will continue next week - Milosevic tried to cast doubt on Vasiljevic's claim of a web of links between him the army, the Serbian interior ministry and the territorial defence units.

Milosevic said he had had no influence over the army and the Serbian forces in Croatia and Bosnia. However, Vasiljevic stood by his claims.

Milosevic had much more success with questions about the alleged secret arming of Croatia and Slovenia, as well as claims that army members and their families stationed in these places were attacked in 1990 and 1991.

Vasiljevic, whose department organised investigations into these events, confirmed all Milosevic's claims concerning the illegally imported arms and the attacks on Yugoslav army personnel.

The general also confirmed the authenticity of the notorious film about the "Spegelj affair" that was aired in January 1991, in which the then minister of defence of Croatia, Martin Speglj, spoke about the secret arming and plans for liquidation of Yugoslav army officers.

Vasiljevic said that he was personally involved in clandestine filming of Croatian ministers and that in the period from October 1990 until January 1991 the army's security service made 20 hours of video and 120 hours of audio recordings concerning illegal arming of Croatia and plans for attacks against the federal army.

Nice objected to this series of questions because they were out of bounds of Vasiljevic's testimony and had questionable relevance.

Judge Richard May did not agree with the second part of the prosecutor's objection, stating that the trial chamber "has heard a lot about arming on Serbian side" and he could see no reason why evidence about the arming of Croats should not be heard.

Regardless of the relevance of this part of Vasiljevic's testimony, he demonstrated that he is very well informed and that he could have been an important prosecution witness in the trial against the late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, had that man been indicted by The Hague.

Mirko Klarin is a senior IWPR editor at The Hague and the editor-in-chief of SENSE news agency.

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