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Ex-Bosnian Serb Officer: Sarajevo Civilians Not Targeted

But prosecution probes reliability of Mladic defence witness.
  • Milorad Sehovac, defence witness in the Mladic trial. (Photo: ICTY)
    Milorad Sehovac, defence witness in the Mladic trial. (Photo: ICTY)

A former Bosnian Serb commander told judges in the trial of Ratko Mladic last week that his unit only ever engaged in defensive actions during his wartime service in Sarajevo.

Milorad Sehovac, who gave evidence in Radovan Karadzic’s defence in December 2012, served as wartime commander of the Bosnian Serb army (VRS) 2nd Sarajevo Brigade, part of the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps (SRK).

At the beginning of the testimony, defence lawyer Dragan Ivetic read out a summary of the witness statement, in which Sehovac said the objectives of the SRK, which numbered between 22,000 and 25,000 soldiers, were to protect the territory of Sarajevo and its population.

To that end, SRK troops tried to blockade the 1st Corps of the Bosnian government army in Sarajevo, which outnumbered them with a strength of about 100,000.

“When carrying out combat operations, opening fire or returning fire that came from Sarajevo, neither his brigade nor Colonel Sehovac viewed these actions as part of a systematic [assault] on civilians,” Ivetic said.

“Superior commands informed his brigade about the provisions of the international law of war and humanitarian law,” he continued. “During the war the brigade educated officers, junior officers and soldiers alike through various forms of training, the most common of which were printed brochures, meetings and talks by the assistant commanders for moral guidance and legal affairs. It was stressed and ordered by military and political leaders that one was to act in accord with the Geneva Conventions.”

In further questioning, the defence asked the witness to explain what was involved in defensive and combat operations, adding, “Can you tell me if any superior officer or orders ever talked of engaging in a widespread or systematic attack on civilians?”

Sehovac replied, “No.”

Mladic’s army is accused of deliberately sniping at and shelling the city’s civilian population in order to “spread terror” among them. Prosecutors allege that Mladic planned and oversaw the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that ravaged the city and left nearly 12,000 people dead.

The indictment – which lists 11 counts in total – alleges that Mladic is responsible for crimes of genocide, persecution, extermination, murder and forcible transfer which “contributed to achieving the objective of the permanent removal of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb-claimed territory”.

The defence went on to question Sehovac about a document dated August 5, 1994 in which the witness proposed certain Bosnian army facilities as targets, including the Aleksa Santic primary school in Sarajevo’s Hrasnica district which he said was being used to manafactuure artillery shells.

“We obtained this information from defectors from Hrasnica,” the witness explained, adding that Bosnian Serb intelligence also provided evidence to support it.

The witness was shown a photograph of the area, and identified the part of the school he said was being used for the production of weapons.

He was asked about an incident on April 7, 1995 where a modified air bomb struck near the school.

These highly inaccurate missiles were aircraft bombs modified so that they could be launched from the ground.

Although he did not know that the attack was planned, he said, “I noticed a big explosion and huge smoke rising and I looked to see where that could be and it was my assessment, as I already stated in the trial in Mr Karadzic’s case and I so confirm here, I assess that it fell approximately in the area of the target – some 20 or 30 metres away from it, actually.”

Sehovac went on to stress that having civilians present in an area where the military was operating was a clear violation of international law by the Bosnian government army.

When asked about the use of snipers in the area, Sehivac said, “I believe I properly instructed and used my snipers, and in keeping with international law.”

The questioning moved on to a tunnel built by the Bosnian government army to connect Sarajevo with territory on the other side of the city airport.

Ivetic asked the witness whether knew “the types of things being transited through the tunnel”.

“According to our information, those who predominately used the tunnel were military police and members of the government and also weapons, fuel and ammunition when it comes to material and equipment,” the witness replied. “We found out about the tunnel towards the end of summer 1993 or in the autumn of 1993.”

In his cross-examination, prosecutor Peter McClosky attempted to show that Sehivac was not a reliable witness.

He began by questioning him about events in Brcko in 1991 and 1992, when Sehivac was chief of staff of the VRS 1st Posavina Brigade.

“So you were in Brcko for quite a while. I take it you were very familiar with events on the ground during that period, August ’91 through July ’92?” he asked.

“Yes, as far as military department is concerned, everything,” the witness replied.

McCloskey noted that in Sehovac’s testimony at the Karadzic trial, he did not mention his time of service in Brcko.

He went on to tell the court that in the Hague trial of former Bosnian Serb politician Momcilo Krajisnik, Sehovac was identified as ordering the death of a Croat man on May 10, 1992.

“Did you know at the time that you signed your report for the Karadzic case that you had been named by a witness in the Krajinik trial as ordering the killing of a Croat man named Franjo Vrgincic?” he asked.

At this point, presiding judge Alphonse Orie intervened to tell the witness that he did not need to respond “if a true answer to that question would tend to incriminate yourself”.

Sehovac said the allegation was “a lie, a pure lie”, going on to explain that at the time of the killing, he had been sent to a village about 20 kilometres away, and that anyway, he had “absolutely no competence or authority over brigade units” at that point.

“In my statement, I did not mention Brcko because I was instructed not to do so by the defence counsel of Mr Karadzic. He said we would only deal with Sarajevo. That was the only reason,” he said, adding that he only learned of the allegation during the Karadzic trial.

The witness at the Krajisnik trial testified that Sehovac had ordered the victim to take his shoes off, McCloskey continued.

“I was not present at the firefighting department and I ordered no shoes to be taken off. This is the first time I hear of it,” said Sehovac.

The prosecutor showed the witness a photo of an open mass grave on the outskirts of Brcko.

“In 1996, Time magazine published this photo and noted in the article that it was in the Brcko area from May and June of 1992 and sir, I can tell you that if you look in the right-hand corner of this photo you see a bare foot and leg. The investigation has revealed that it’s the leg of Franjo Vrgincic,” McCloskey said.

The prosecutor later returned to the topic of the tunnel linking Sarajevo with Bosnian government-held territory outside the city. He asked whether the witness had told the defence counsel “that the VRS did not target the tunnel due to the close proximity of UN personnel near the entrance of the same”.

According to United Nations military observers, in May 1995, the VRS fired missiles at the entrance to the tunnel, killing ten and injuring many more.

Sehovac said that this “could in fact be true”. While the VRS did target the airport, they did not fire on UN troops nearby, he added.

McCloskey argued that Sehovac could not be viewed as a reliable witness.

The trial continues.

Daniella Peled  is IWPR Editor in London. 

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