Court Hears of Scorpions' Kosovo Deployment

Witness says members of the Serbian special police unit attacked Kosovo Albanian civilians.

Court Hears of Scorpions' Kosovo Deployment

Witness says members of the Serbian special police unit attacked Kosovo Albanian civilians.

Saturday, 3 October, 2009
The former commander of a Serbian anti-terrorist unit told the war crimes trial of former Serbian police chief Vlastimir Djordjevic that the interior ministry ordered the deployment of the Scorpions reservist unit in Kosovo in 1999.

Zivko Trajkovic told judges that as the commander of the interior ministry’s Special Anti-Terrorist Unit, SAJ, he was sent to the Kosovo town of Podujevo on March 22, 1999 where he was to carry out coordinated operations with the Yugoslav Army, VJ and Serbian Ministry of Interior, MUP, units.

In the spring of 1999, he said, an order was given by MUP to deploy a group of Serbian soldiers known as the Scorpions in Podujevo. The witness did not say directly if the order was addressed to him.

While Trajkovic could not say who had personally ordered the deployment of the unit, he said this could “have only been done by the order of the minister”, referring to the then minister of the interior.

On March 28, 1999, 14 Kosovo Albanian civilian women and children were murdered in Podujevo. A member of the Scorpions unit was sentenced for his part in the massacre in 2005, and four more members were sentenced for their involvement in June of this year, at the Serbia war crimes court.

Djordjevic is on trial at the Hague tribunal for his alleged participation in a “systematic campaign” of terror and violence against Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian population. He is accused of engaging in a “joint criminal enterprise” that resulted in the deportation, murder, transfer and persecution of about 800,000 ethnic Albanians between January 1 and June 20, 1999.

According to the indictment, Djordjevic “took a lead role” in efforts to conceal murders, in cooperation with Serbian state security forces and the VJ.

The office of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, interviewed Trajkovic as a suspect in the proceedings against former Serbian president Milan Milutinovic and his co-accused in 2004. Milutinovic, who was charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity in Kosovo, was acquitted on all counts by the Hague tribunal in February this year.

However, no indictment was ever issued against Trajkovic.

This week, Trajkovic told the court that in early 1998, SAJ units were tasked with assisting the MUP to resolve mounting security problems in Kosovo.

The SAJ secured police check-points and unblocked Kosovo roads that had been compromised by Kosovo Albanian fighters, Trajkovic told the judges in a reference to the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA.

“[MUP] forces were ordered to clear … the autonomous area of Kosovo of terrorist activity,” Trajkovic told the judges, so that Kosovo could be under “Serbian defence forces”, referring to the then Yugoslav police and army.

The VJ supplied the SAJ with fire support and armed vehicles to aid in securing the areas where fighters had strongholds, Trajkovic said.

Prosecutor Chester Stamp asked Trajkovic if any members of the MUP leadership were present in the field during the operations in Kosovo.

Trajkovic said that Djordjevic and General Obrad Stevanovic often represented the Serbian MUP in the province, and that Djordjevic’s presence showed the importance and significance of the operations.

He added that all units sent by the MUP, including the SAJ, were placed under the joint command.

According to the indictment, the joint command was established by the civilian, political and military leadership in 1998 as a means to complement the VJ and MUP chains of command. Djordjevic took part in the joint command, and through this body coordinated all of the units of the Public Security Department, RJB, of the MUP in Kosovo, the indictment says.

The prosecutor then asked Trajkovic how Scorpions troops had first come to be deployed in the SAJ units.

He said that an order had been given by the interior ministry to use them some time after he had asked Djordjevic to find a combat group that could be attached to the SAJ forces.

Stamp asked if the members of the Scorpions had ever been evaluated for training and suitability on the field.

“Yes, certainly,” Trajkovic told the judges. “But considering the situation, we certainly wouldn’t have given these men operational tasks.”

Trajkovic added that the additional men were instead deployed to help secure the area where the units were quartered.

On March 27, Trajkovic said that he was in a car driving through Podujevo when his vehicle hit a tank mine. The driver of the vehicle was killed, and Trajkovic and two other people were wounded, he said.

While in hospital in Kosovo’s capital Pristina the next day, he received a phone call from Djordjevic, informing him that an “incident” had taken place in Podujevo after his accident, he said.

Djordjevic told Trajkovic that several of the Scorpions had come across a group of civilians while trying to find accommodation in the village.

Trajkovic said the members of the Scorpions unit later told him they had been “provoked” by the crowd, and began shooting at the civilians with AK-47 automatic rifles, the witness said.

During a conversation with Djordjevic, Trajkovic said he was asked to bring the entire Scorpion unit back to Belgrade, where they would be discharged and sent home.

Trajkovic then met Djordjevic and Milutinovic to discuss the killing of civilians in Podujevo by the Scorpion unit members, which they all considered to be an “excessive crime”, Trajkovic said.

However, they agreed that all of the Scorpions should not suffer consequences for what a select few members of the group had done. There were 128 members of the unit in total, Trajkovic said, adding that “15 or 16” soldiers had been involved in the shooting.

“If I had been there, it would not have happened,” Trajkovic told the judges.

Trajkovic said he, Djordjevic and Milutinovic also discussed the possibility of redeploying members of the Scorpions unit after the incident in Podujevo.

He said there was a “tacit agreement” among the men that the guilty members of the Scorpions unit should not be re-engaged.

When asked by Stamp who was responsible for deciding whether such a unit should be redeployed, Trajkovic said the engagement of the forces would have been approved by the minister of the interior, adding that the decision could also have been delegated to a subordinate officer.

Several of the Scorpion unit soldiers were re-engaged in April 1999, and fought with the SAJ unit until June, Trajkovic said.

Prosecutor Stamp asked whether any of the men directly involved in the alleged shooting in Podujevo had been redeployed.

Trajkovic said that they had been, but he had discovered this only a year or two ago, as a result of criminal trials brought against members of the Scorpions in the region.

Prosecutor Stamp then asked the witness about the discovery of 800 bodies in mass graves outside the SAJ base in Batajnica in 2001.

“Did you at any time participate in any operation or any part of any operation to transport and conceal the remains of these people?” Stamp asked.

The witness said that he had taken part in efforts to conceal the bodies.

Trajkovic told judges that in June 1999, he had asked Djordjevic why the bodies had been buried on the SAJ perimeter.

According to Trajkovic, Djordjevic said that “it was the decision of people who were much more important than you and me”.

“What can I tell you? All of my brave generals buried their heads and left it to me to finish this kind of work,” Trajkovic quoted Djordjevic as saying.

The witness added that later, Djordjevic said that he should not be concerned with the matter and told him not bring it up again.

The Djordjevic trial continues next week.

Julia Hawes is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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