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COURTSIDE: HVO Soldiers Confront Commanders

Soldiers from the Bosnian Croat army give evidence against their former commanders.

There was an unusual development at the trial of former Croatian Defence Council, HVO, commanders Mladen Naletilic "Tuta" and Vinko Martinovic "Stela" last week, when onetime HVO soldiers were introduced as prosecution witnesses. Amongst the evidence given by these new witnesses was testimony of how Muslim detainees from Mostar were used by HVO forces in 1993 as a "human shield".

In previous war crime trials, witnesses for the prosecution have tended to be drawn from the victims of the accused, or those believed to be holding neutral views. In this case, all three of the HVO "insiders" giving evidence to the tribunal wore the same uniform as Tuta and Stela, but significantly none were actually Bosnian Croats themselves.

One witness was a Muslim, while the other two were foreign mercenaries, one Danish and one German. The German witness, Ralf Mrachacz, is currently serving a life sentence in Germany for crimes he committed in Bosnia.

The Muslim witness had fought with the HVO and used the pseudonym "S" to give his evidence. He confirmed prosecution's claim that the HVO attacks on Muslims in Mostar were planned with the aim of ethnically cleansing the area. During his testimony, "S" gave details of a meeting of HVO commanders in a Mostar cafe on the eve of the offensive which began on May 9, 1993.

At this meeting, it was reported that Tuta had ordered the attack in which, "mosques would be mined, Muslim women and children expelled to the eastern part of town and men would be detained or killed if they resisted".

There was independent evidence to suggest that the events described had indeed taken place.

"S" also gave evidence about crimes against Muslim detainees in the area of Mostar controlled by Stela and his anti-terrorist unit during the following months. Detainees were initially brought up to the Mostar front line to fill sand bags and dig trenches for the HVO forces. But according to the witness, on one occasion they were ordered by Stela to put on HVO uniforms and sit behind the sand bags as a form of human shield.

"Then the soldiers began to literally throw the detainees over the sand bags into the open space...The crossfire started. I saw several detainees being hit," said "S". The witness also added that Stela was amongst those who fired in the direction of the victims. The abuse of detainees by Stela's soldiers was confirmed in the evidence of a Danish mercenary who served in Stela's unit during the autumn of 1993. Giving evidence anonymously, he described a failed attempt to take over a Bosnian army position at the front line.

"An officer informed us before the attack that ten to fifteen detainees would have to put on HVO uniforms and wooden rifles and act as a human shield," said the Dane. However, during the action the mercenary had lost sight of the detainees and couldn't report what had happened to them.

The third HVO "insider", German Ralf Mrachacz, a member of the HVO's Convict Battalion (CB) from 1992, gave evidence about its operation and Tuta's overall authority within it. The witness took part in a number of CB actions in Herzegovina led by Tuta. He also testified about links between Tuta's battalion and Croatia.

"There were direct connections between the CB and Croatia, judging from the fact that payment and supplies were under Zagreb's control," said Mrachacz.

Prior to joining the HVO battalion, Mrachacz had fought with Croatian army units in Herzegovina and described in court how its members would replace their own Croatian army, HV, patches with HVO ones to disguise their presence in the region.

The prosecution continues the presentation of its evidence this week.

Vjera Bogati is an IWPR special correspondent at The Hague and journalist with SENSE News Agency.

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