Expert Unable to Explain Visegrad Fire

Too much time has passed since incident to give conclusive answers, said defence witness.

Expert Unable to Explain Visegrad Fire

Too much time has passed since incident to give conclusive answers, said defence witness.

Saturday, 14 March, 2009
A military explosives expert testifying in the Hague trial of Milan and Sredoje Lukic failed to shed light on how a house in Visegrad caught fire in June 1992, killing 70 people inside.

Prosecutors say the house was deliberately set alight by the Bosnian Serb cousins and others as part of their attempts to “ethnically cleanse” the Bosnian town, ridding it of its Bosniak population.

But Stephan O’Donnell, who works for the United States Army, said that after examining the burnt-out house on the town’s Pionirska Street this year, he was unable to tell how the fire had begun.

“Answers trickle away as time goes on,” said O’Donnell, who appeared at the request of Milan Lukic’s defence team.

“The time between the incident and when I showed up 15 years later does not allow me to give any [conclusive] answers.”

The Lukic cousins are accused of herding up to 70 Bosniaks into the house and setting it on fire on the evening of June 14, 1992. Prosecutors say only seven people survived the incident.

According to the prosecutor’s pretrial brief, the carpet in the ground floor room into which the civilians were forced “was wet and smelled like gasoline”. Milan Lukic then allegedly “opened the door of the room and introduced an incendiary or explosives device… This device ignited a fire near the door and set the house on fire”, said the brief.

As the fire worsened, both Milan and Sredoje allegedly threw more explosives into the house. Some people tried to escape by breaking the windows and jumping out, but the Lukic cousins “were standing outside underneath the windows to shoot at those attempting to flee”, continued the brief.

O’Donnell, who traveled to Visegrad in late January this year to examine the remains of the house, said that the structure had decomposed to such an extent that “any type of evidence [of] the [explosive] device would be gone”.

Nonetheless, the witness said that he found what he called “impact marks” on the walls – one of which lead him to recover a “piece of metal embedded in the wall”.

The fragment – heavily rusted – was produced in court and entered as evidence.

However, O’Donnell was unable to say if the piece of metal – or the surrounding marks on the wall which had drawn his attention towards it – was the result of an explosion.

“I’m not going to sit here and say these are, without a shadow of a doubt, fragmentation marks [caused by an explosive device],” he told defence lawyer Jason Alarid.

He added that there was no way to prove whether or not the metal had come from an explosive device “or [from] some other item that was [already] there in the foundation of the house itself”.

O’Donnell then told the court that he had been shown some statements taken from witnesses which described the alleged house-burning and found their versions of events to be improbable.

Specifically, he mentioned the statement of one witness, who apparently said he heard “gunshots and screams for half an hour after the incident”.

“If you have a room with an accelerant [inside], put people in it and ignite it… those people [would] succumb to smoke inhalation in minutes,” said O’Donnell. “There wouldn’t be a need for gunshots [after that].”

He also said that the figure of 70 people alleged to have been trapped in the house – as listed in the indictment – seemed inflated.

If so many people were crowded into the room, he said, there wouldn’t be any fragmentation marks on the walls, as a result of an explosion.

“The individuals closest to [the blast] absorb the fragmentation,” he explained. “The more bodies you have in the room, the less effect [the blast has on the room].”

When it was prosecutor Dermot Groome’s turn to question the witness, he asked O’Donnell if he agreed that “some kind of explosion” had occurred in the room.

“Yes,” responded O’Donnell, although he added that he could not conclude how many explosions had taken place.

O’Donnell also admitted that he didn’t bother conducting a residue test on the walls as so much time had passed since the incident.

When Groome attempted to probe the witness on how long explosive residue would remain at the scene of a blast, O’Donnell said it depended on many factors, including if the area was in a conflict zone.

Groome then showed the witness a series of photos of the Pionirska house, which appeared almost completely destroyed, except for its basic, two-story brick frame.

Some of the bricks located above the room where the fire is alleged to have begun appeared cracked.

However, O’Donnell said an explosion in the room below would not be big enough to cause such cracks, and so he didn’t investigate them.

“You didn’t look at the rest of the building?” asked Groome.

“There was nothing to look at,” he answered. “I walked [around] the perimeter and saw there was [nothing of] significance.”

O’Donnell added that the state of the bricks was of no significance because there was a large slab of concrete cushioning the space between the bricks and the room where the explosive is said to have taken place.

“Did you measure the thickness of the slab?” inquired Groome.

“There is no way to tell how deep or thick concrete is,” responded O’Donnell.

The trial continues next week.

Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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