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Croatian Army Accused of Shelling Serb Civilians

As he drove through Knin, witness speaks of seeing corpses along the roadside.
By Goran Jungvirth
A former senior United Nations official told the trial of three Croatian generals this week that their forces systematically shelled residential areas rather than military bases during a 1995 operation.

Ante Gotovina, Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac are indicted at the Hague tribunal for war crimes against Serbs committed by troops under their command during and after Operation Storm – an offensive aimed at retaking territory held by Serb rebels since 1991.

General Andrew Leslie said artillery shelling on Knin in the southeast Krajina region started at 5.02 am on August 4, 1995, and continued non-stop for two hours, hitting mostly civilian targets. There were only three military targets in Knin, he said. Sporadic shelling continued throughout the day.

“From 7am onwards, it was easier to determine that most of the shells were dropped on the area of houses in the centre of town, but that doesn’t mean that the smaller groups of buildings in the suburbs were excluded from shelling,” Leslie told the court.

Leslie, currently Canada’s land forces commander and a former NATO commander in Afghanistan, was the head of UN headquarters in Sector South in Knin at the time. He is one of the highest ranking officers to testify in the trial.

According to the indictment, the Croatian army precipitated a mass exodus of Serbs from the region. The generals are accused of taking part in a joint criminal enterprise with the goal of cleansing the Serb population from Croatia. The indictment says that at least 30 people were killed in Knin, and at least 150 in the whole of Krajina region from August to November 1995.

This week, Leslie said he estimated around 3,000 shells were fired at Knin for a day and a half before Croat forces entered the town at around noon on August 5.

On that day, the witness was involved in the evacuation of patients from the town’s hospital.

As he drove there, he saw corpses by the road and found dozens in the hospital. He saw “no less than 30 and no more than 50-60 dead bodies” in Knin at the time of shelling.

However, he added that the Croatian forces made “great efforts not to hit the hospital” which suffered no serious damage during the attack.

Leslie dismissed the possibility put forward by the defence that Serb forces – angry that the Croatian army was about to enter Knin – carried out some of the shelling.

During cross-examination, Gotovina’s defence lawyer Gregory Kehoe showed Leslie reports by UN and United States military observers that said the Croatian army targeted military points, with damage to civilian buildings only occurring where they were close to military targets.

Leslie simply replied that the UN Military Observer, UNMO, data had “created controversy” when it was released.

The defence also sought to counter an earlier assertion by Leslie that in the first two days of Operation Storm, there were no active Serb forces or positions in the area. Kehoe presented UN reports about a Serb military presence, as well as some of Leslie’s own statements, which said that Knin region was occupied by soldiers and artillery at the time.

The defence played a statement Leslie gave to the BBC on the evening of August 4, in which he said the Croatians were not near Knin, and that there were “a lot of Serbs in Knin and its surroundings”.

Asked who he was referring to, Leslie said, “Serbs means Serbs…I’m not making a distinction between soldiers or civilians…not in the context of that statement.”

The defence then showed the witness a statement he made to Canada’s Toronto Star newspaper, in which he said he personally saw a Serb tank returning fire in front of a UN base in the area.

Kehoe also presented various reports by UN military observers from August 5, about the movements of Serb artillery towards Knin, as well as their distribution across positions around nearby Strmice from where they opened fire on the town that night.

Leslie acknowledged that he knew about this. He said that the day before the attack, some 15 to 20 kilometres from Knin, he saw a much more sophisticated and professional Serb artillery unit than he had seen before in the region.

The trial continues next week.

Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR-trained journalist.

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