Croatia: Regional Report: Government Seeks to Absolve Gotovina

Officials say secret papers will show Krajina leadership organised mass flight of Serbs in 1995, thereby mitigating indicted general's role in the alleged crime.

Croatia: Regional Report: Government Seeks to Absolve Gotovina

Officials say secret papers will show Krajina leadership organised mass flight of Serbs in 1995, thereby mitigating indicted general's role in the alleged crime.

The Croatian government believes documents it has handed to The Hague tribunal will aid the cause of indicted general Ante Gotovina, who is accused of the ethnic cleansing of Serbs in the Krajina region seven years ago.

The move comes after a well-placed government source revealed the existence of documentation containing details of a Serb plan to evacuate the area that dates as far back as 1993.

It is alleged that the items, which include transcripts of telephone conversations, videotapes and written material, were discovered after the Krajina fell to a massive Croatian offensive codenamed Operation Storm in August 1995.

The authorities handed the material to the tribunal's chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte during her visit to Zagreb in May.

Proof that the Serbs already intended to clear the area would clearly assist defence lawyers representing Gotovina, who has been on the run since his indictment was announced a year ago.

This is because the prosecution case rests on a claim that the 250,000 Serbs who fled after the fall of the Krajina were forced out by the Croatian military.

Then lieutenant general, Gotovina was in command of the Split region and led Operation Storm. He has been charged with playing a key role in the displacement of the area's Serb population and is accused of crimes against humanity.

However, the timing of this latest development has been called into question. A recent census has shown that Croatia's Serb population has fallen from 12 to four per cent. A source close to Prime Minister Ivica Racan said the government feared the tribunal might seize on this as proof that two-thirds of the country's Serbs had been expelled.

Milan Djukic, a Croatian Serb representative, recently said the census showed the minority had been ethnically cleansed more thoroughly over the last decade than they were under the pro-Nazi Croatian government of Ante Pavelic in the 1940s.

The authorities want to counter this kind of talk by producing proof that many Serbs left of their own accord before Operation Storm took place. "Such an argument will work in favour of General Gotovina," the government source said.

They aim to show that the self-proclaimed president of the breakaway Republic of Serbian Krajina, Milan Martic, drew up detailed civilian evacuation plans two years before Operation Storm.

The crucial documents are believed to include an item dated from July 1995, a week before the Croatian action, which says a mass exodus may only begin after the Krajina government authorises it, and the actual evacuation order itself, signed by Martic on August 4, one day before Operation Storm.

It is understood that the items include a videotaped recording of what appears to be a practice evacuation of a village near the Mreznica River in 1993.

Government colleagues of Racan in the ranks of his Social Democratic Party say the importance of the documentation is that it shows many Serbs abandoned the Krajina before the entry of the Croatian army and that the region's leadership knew this was going on but kept it secret.

The government wants to get the Gotovina case off its back before parliamentary elections take place in January 2004. If it reduced the general's responsibility for the mass exodus of the Serbs, it would be a triumph for the centre-left coalition, which is regularly assailed by the right-wing opposition as unpatriotic.

The coalition, now numbering five parties, almost collapsed after Gotovina was indicted last year. Racan's chief partners, the more nationalistic Social Liberals, led by Drazen Budisa, vehemently opposed the general's extradition.

Gotovina's disappearance after the indictment was published is widely believed to have taken place with the tacit approval of the government, as his arrest and transportation to The Hague would almost certainly have triggered its fall.

Cabinet sources say the hope is that if the prime minister succeeds in having the indictment against Gotovina altered, the general might turn himself in.

Whether the government is indulging in wishful thinking remains unclear. Before the tribunal received the new Zagreb documents, Del Ponte insisted there could be no talk of altering Gotovina's indictment until he had surrendered to the court.

Also, tribunal sources say that the validity of documentation could only be established in court and cannot be commented on in advance.

Dragutin Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor.

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