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Former Bosnian foreign minister Muhamed Sacirbegovic told the war crimes trial of former Yugoslav army, VJ, general Momcilo Perisic this week that he knew nothing about arms supplies to Bosnia disguised as humanitarian aid during the 1992-95 war.
Sacirbegovic, who spoke by video link to The Hague from United Nations headquarters in New York, testified earlier in the trial that Yugoslav officials, including Perisic, “were informed of the mass killing and crimes against civilians” in Bosnia and were actively involved.
In his cross-examination of the witness, Perisic’s defence lawyer, Gregor Guy-Smith, used a series of newspaper articles from western media to show that despite Security Council resolution 713, which had introduced an embargo on weapons imports into the countries of former Yugoslavia, the government of Bosnia and Hercegovina was provided with armaments under cover of humanitarian aid.
The texts speak of violations of the embargo by several countries such as Iran, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in providing weapons and ammunition to the Bosnian army. According to claims made by Perisic's defence, all these weapons had been supplied under the guise of humanitarian supplies.
Quoting a May 1994 newspaper article from the Washington Post, Guy-Smith said that in that month an Iranian air transporter carried 60 tonnes of explosive to Bosnia via Croatia.
“Are you familiar with this article?" asked the lawyer.
“Yes, I do know about the article, but don't have any further information on the concrete air delivery," Sacirbegovic answered.
The defence said that one airborne shipment from Iran that was intercepted in Croatia contained more than 4,000 guns and more than a million rounds of ammunition as well as between 20 and 40 Iranians.
“I have no direct knowledge of that precise case," said the witness. "I was much more worried at the time about the control of Bosnia's borders and deliveries of items or persons" into the country.
Reports in American newspapers also said that several people fighting in Bosnia had come from Iran, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
Sacirbegovic said, “Their motives were different from the motives of the Bosnian people.
"They were there for two reasons, first the money - meaning they were mercenaries, and second, they were volunteers. Their combat aims were different from the aim of the Bosnian people, which was a 'multi-ethnic country for all its citizens'."
The witness also pointed out that there also a large number of mercenaries on the other side, men from "Greece, Bulgaria, Russia and other countries, who had come to fight for money with the Bosnian Serbs".
The indictment says that Perisic provided financial, material, logistical and personnel support to Serb forces operating in Bosnia and Croatia between 1991 and 1995, thus contributing to the crimes those forces committed in Sarajevo, Srebrenica and Zagreb.
Perisic's lawyer pointed out another article that spoke of a "cheque for one million dollars given to the Bosnian government by the Iranian government". According to claims from that article, "the cheque was intended for military support to the army of Bosnia-Hercegovina”.
The defence then pointed out another text in which, it said, Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic appeared to be reacting with gratitude.
Sacirbegovic said that he was not able to comment on those claims as he "knows nothing of the expressions of gratitude directed by President Izetbegovic to the government of Iran".
Guy–Smith asked if he was aware of a shipment of anti-tank armaments that was intercepted aboard a Brazilian ship.
“No, I am not familiar with it,” answered the witness.
"That means you didn't know your country was buying smuggled anti-tank armament from Brazil?" Guy-Smith asked again.
“I only know that there was a necessity for us to have anti-tank armament. We needed it most certainly, but I have no knowledge of this particular case," said the witness.
In cross-examination, Sacirbegovic confirmed that in late June 1995 he had stated that the "presence of UNPROFOR (UN protection force) in Bosnia is not in the interest of civilians and the Bosnian government, but of various western powers".
"I was at the time unhappy with the way the UNPROFOR was handling its mandate," he said. "UNPROFOR had lost the power to handle its own mandate."
The reason for that was that "the peacekeeping forces in Bosnia had come under threat, and their self-defence had taken priority in relation to defence of civilians and provision of humanitarian aid".
At the end of the testimony, the lawyer said that Sacirbegovic had been arrested by the New Orleans Police Department in 1980 and in 2000 for "cheating while gambling".
Sacirbegovic said it was true that he had been arrested several times but had never been indicted. He insisted he had done nothing illegal and the incident was a set-up, either by the police or his enemies, with the aim of discrediting him.
Perisic’s trial started on October 2, 2008. He surrendered to the Hague tribunal in March 2005, pleading not guilty to charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The trial continues next week.
Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
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