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Court Told Markac Respected Rules of War

Witness says defendant stressed the need to do so particularly in relation to Serb civilians.
By Goran Jungvirth
Croatian special police chief Mladen Markac urged respect for the rules of war during Operation Storm, a defence witness told the Hague tribunal this week.



Zoran Cvrk, a former special police commander, was testifying as a defence witness for Markac, his former chief, now on trial charged with war crimes committed during the August 1995 operation in the Krajina region of Croatia.



Markac is accused alongside former Croatian commander Ivan Cermak and Croatian general Ante Gotovina of participating in a joint criminal enterprise to drive the ethnic Serb population from the Krajina region in 1995. In that operation, Croatian forces recaptured the Krajina region, which had been held by rebel Serbs since 1991.



According to the indictment, Gotovina was overall operational commander of the offensive in the southern portion of the Krajina region, Markac was in charge of special police units, and Cermak commanded the Knin garrison.



“Mladen Markac had the power, authority, and responsibility to prevent or punish serious violations of international humanitarian law committed by Croatian forces during and after Operation Storm in the period from 4 August to 15 November 1995... They were warned about such acts by representatives of the international community,” the indictment reads.



But Cvrk, wartime commander of the special Alfa unit of the Zagreb police department, testified that “Markac is an honourable man”.



“We had the correct instructions on the observance of military law and relations with international institutions,” he added.



Prosecutor Prashanti Mahindaratne, during the initial presentation of arguments against Markac, said that “he personally led special forces that robbed and burned houses, and killed Serbian civilians in regions he operated in, towards Gracac and Donji Lapac, and later in cleaning operations”.



It is estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 Serbs left the region around the time of the offensive. Prosecutors allege that Croatian forces shelled civilian areas, and say that at least 30 people were killed in Knin and at least 150 across the entire Krajina region between August and November 1995.



Markac was the commander of the interior ministry's special police which participated in Operation Storm and in securing territory after the action.



Cvrk described how, from August 4 to 8 1995, police special forces penetrated enemy lines from Velebit mountain to the border with Bosnia at Kulen Vakuf.



He said that up to 2,500 members of the special forces crossed 60 to 80 kilometres of territory, mostly on foot, during those four days.



Cvrk added that as far as he knew, the rules of war had been respected regarding the use of artillery during the attack and occupation of the cities of Gracac and Donji Lapac.



“Only legitimate military targets got shot [at], such as police stations and command of the enemy army,” the witness said.



Cvrk, whose men were providing cover for the flanks of the chief police force, confirmed that he saw damage from shells on buildings he named as legitimate military targets, as well as traces of bullets on civilian houses in the suburbs of Gracac.



By mid-September, he continued, special forces further secured the remaining ground of Petrova Gora and the southern sector from Serb forces.



Cvrk said that it had been a “largely uninhabited area, emptied of civilians”, and those people who were found in remote hamlets had been told to go to newly-opened police stations to receive new documents.



A small number of civilians that special forces found in some villages were directed to the police or the United Nations peace keeping forces in Croatia.



All that time, according to the witness, Markac acted in accordance to the law, Cvrk told Markac’s defence lawyer Goran Mikulicic.



The defence took into evidence several reports from Markac in which he stated that special forces members directed civilians to the police or to the UN.



According to the witness, Markac stressed during all meetings the need to respect the international rules of war, “particularly in relation to the Serbian civilians”.



Cvrk said that while those instructions were not issued in written commands “they were verbally communicated during the daily briefings”.



He also added that basic police special forces training including how to treat civilians.



Cvrk said that during the searches of liberated areas police special forces did not make any distinction between villages with a majority Serb or Croat population.



Part of the charges against Markac relate to the burning of houses in Donji Lapac, and the witness told Mahindaratne that “according to his knowledge” the arson occurred when Croatian army soldiers entered the city.



Cvrk claimed that special police force members did not set fire to property when they entered Donji Lapac on August 7.



“Later, from some general knowledge, I found out that one Croatian army unit entered the city, so it is possible that there occurred some problem, the arson of a few economic facilities,” he said.



He further explained that he heard that there had been some ten incidents of arson in Donji Lapac, including the burning of houses, vehicles and a motel.



The Croatian military unit he named was from the Gospic military district, then led by General Mirko Norac.



Norac is currently serving time in Croatia for crimes against Serbian civilians in Gospic in 1991 and for crimes against Serbian civilians and their property during the Medak Pocket operation in 1993.



The witness added that Markac did not have the jurisdiction and power to order the investigation of crimes possibly committed by special forces police.



Former deputy interior minister Josko Moric is to appear as Markac’s next witness.



Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR-trained reporter in Zagreb.

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