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Court Considers Croatia Invasion of Bosnia

Petkovic war crimes trial hears justification for ordering soldiers into neighbouring country.
By Velma Šarić

Croatian army general Ivan Beneta testified this week at the Hague tribunal in the defence of wartime Bosnian Croat official Milivoj Petkovic, saying that Croatia had had no other way to defend itself than by sending troops into the territory of Bosnia-Hercegovina.

"This was the only way to stop the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) forces. Once they occupied Bosnia-Hercegovina, they would also occupy the southeastern part of Croatia," Beneta told the war crimes court.

Petkovic is on trial along with five other high-ranking Bosnian Croat officials: Jadranko Prlic, Bruno Stojic, Slobodan Praljak, Valentin Coric and Berislav Pusic.

The six are accused of responsibility for the expulsion, rape, torture and murder of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and other non-Croats between late 1991 and early 1994, as part of an alleged plan to ethnically cleanse parts of Bosnia in order to later join them to a so-called Greater Croatia.

Petkovic, former military commander of the Croatian Defence Council, HVO, in the breakaway Croatian republic of Herceg-Bosna, faces charges of command responsibility for war crimes committed during 1992 and 1993 in southwestern and central Bosnia.

The indictment concentrates on crimes against humanity committed in the municipalities of Prozor, Gornji Vakuf, Jablanica, Mostar, Ljubuski, Stolac, Capljina and Vares.

Beneta, brigadier general of the Croatian army, HV, said he knew Petkovic from their time in the former JNA, when they both worked on educating reserve officers in Zadar.

"We were not friends, but I knew he worked in the neighbouring training centre, which educated active and reserve officers for artillery units. I think Mr Petkovic was a successful officer," Beneta said.

Beneta said that he left the JNA in July 1991, joining the Croatian army as a volunteer. Apart from defending the Croatian seaside towns of Zadar, Split and Dubrovnik, Beneta spent parts of 1992 and 1993 with his troops on Bosnian soil.

"I was involved with the fourth guards brigade, and later with the 116th brigade, in the Hercegovina area. With my units I was, by my own estimate, some 20-25 kilometres beyond the Bosnian border,” he said.

Asked by presiding judge Jean-Claude Antonetti whether any fighting had taken place in the territory occupied by the HV, Beneta said it had.

Speaking of the military action in Bosnia in July 1992, in which he took part as the commander of the HV’s fourth guards brigade, Beneta said it was a "joint military effort by Croats and Muslims by which the city of Stolac was liberated from the JNA".

"Those Muslims who stayed behind to live under Serb occupation helped us enter Stolac on June 11, 1992, and afterwards they joined the HVO in order to establish frontlines together with us," Beneta said.

As evidence for its claims, the defence presented a document titled Friendship and Cooperation Agreement from August 1992, after Stolac was liberated, signed by the then Bosnian and Croatian presidents, Alija Izetbegovic and Franjo Tudjman.

Asked by defence attorney Vesna Alaburić whether territorial defence, TO, troops loyal to the Sarajevo government - what she called the Bosnian president's army - had "enough force to eliminate the attacking JNA and Bosnian Serb forces", the witness said it did not.

He said it was estimated that the TO in Stolac was "not strong enough to carry out military action in that area and at that time".

Explaining the military action in another state, Beneta said that the main reason was the danger from possible JNA penetration, saying, "The military intervention in Bosnia-Hercegovina was the only way to protect Croatia."

Beneta said in a separate written statement to the court that there was a backup plan by the JNA prepared for the case of a violent dissolution of Yugoslavia and codenamed S2. He said it became "clear soon enough" that the true aim was to allow Serb troops to enter Croatia and establish Greater Serbia.

The defence team also pointed to opinion from Slovene expert Milan Gorjanc that a country may enter another if it is attacked from its territory – so as the JNA was attacking Croatia from the border areas, Croatia was thus entitled to enter Bosnian territory. In May of 1991, the JNA had planned to enter and occupy southern Croatia from the western border of Bosnia, according to a map produced by Gorjanc.

The trial began on April 26, 2006, and the prosecution's part of the proceedings ended in February of 2008. The trial continues next week.

Velma Saric is an IWPR trainee.

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