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Famed war correspondent testifies for Blaskic

BBC war reporter turned politician Martin Bell MP, testifies on behalf of General Tihomir Blaskic who also took to the stand last week as the 145th witness in this marathon trial.

From Tribunal Update 113 / Last Week in The Hague (15-20 February, 1999)

The former BBC war reporter-turned politician Martin Bell MP, also appeared in court last week as a witness for the Defence. Blaskic's counsel practically only had one question for Mr Bell, namely: what did the accused say during the press conference held on 27 April 1993 - 11 days after the massacre in Ahmici?

From the pocket of his now legendary white suit, Bell took out a black notebook. Blaskic, he told the court "said he was horrified, and that he [was] going to do something about it". The witnesses went on: [Blaskic said] "Whoever did was organised, systematic and planned. The culprits must be identified and brought to justice. [He] was appalled."

Defence counsel Russell Hayman then announced that he had no further questions for the witness. Cross-examining, Prosecutor Mark Harmon, noted that Bell's report from Ahmici, broadcast on 23 April 1993 on the BBC and carried on many other networks, had a "global effect." Bell agreed. Hayman pointed that the reports about that crime were submitted to the international community by the BritBatt in Vitez and the ECMM (European Community Monitoring Mission). Again, Bell agreed. The Prosecution maintained that news of the crime had led to strong international pressure on Croatia, which Bell not only confirmed but also added that it led to then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher cancelling her planned visit to Zagreb.

The Prosecution then submitted a document relating to the political and military leadership of the so-called Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia, which contained the claim by Mate Boban that "due to [actions in] Vitez and Ahmici, the European ministers nearly imposed sanctions on Croatia." That is correct, Bell said.

Judge Shahabuddeen followed up this line of questioning and asked the witness: "As a trained war correspondent, was it your view that a military commander faced with such an event and such reaction...ha(d) any alternative than to condemn it." Bell agreed that he didn't: either as a commander, or as a human being, since all that took place "in his area of responsibility."

Counsel for the prosecution then produced documents showing that Blaskic tried to find some "alternative explanations" for the crime in Ahmici. Two days before the quoted condemnation, in a conversation with the commander of the British Battalion, Colonel Bob Stewart, Blaskic accused the Western media of "extremely biased, one-sided reports", claiming that "journalists have been paid to report events untruly." Moreover, at the beginning of May 1993, in a conversation with Colonel Dunkan, Blaskic presented three possible versions of the crime in Ahmici. Responsibility he said, lay with "Serb extremists", "Muslim extremists who infiltrated the HVO", or "Muslims who were dressed in the uniforms of the HVO."

Bell replied that all three versions were "incredible".

Blaskic's counsel used the presence of Martin Bell MP to include as material evidence video excerpts from his war reports for the BBC. The court was shown a selection of 15 excerpts, filmed between 9 July 1993 and 14 January 1994, that focused mainly upon B-H Army offensives on Vitez, Travnik, Busovaca and other places in Central Bosnia and HVO attempts to maintain its positions in the face of attack. The footage also showed well as the suffering of Croat civilians in the villages of the Lasva Valley. By introducing this footage as evidence, the Defence is looking to prove that Croats were endangered in that part of Bosnia in 1993, and not the Bosniaks, and that the B-H Army and not the HVO had military supremacy.

Attempting to place the video-presentation into a defined time context - the Prosecution replied with two of its own excerpts -also taken from Bell's reports for the BBC. Both were filmed in the second half of April 1993, that is - as was stated - from 2 to 9 months before the excerpts used by the Defence. In the first, Bell talks about the offensive of the HVO in the Lasva River Valley describing it as a kind of "implementation" of the Vance-Owen peace-plan. Namely, Bell says, "Croats are taking for themselves partS of Bosnia they think belongs to them according to the Vance-Owen plan."

The second excerpt of the prosecutor was filmed on 22 April 1993 when Bell and the British soldiers entered Ahmici for the first time, where six days earlier, more than 100 people were killed and all Muslim homes burnt. In the burnt remnants of one of the houses, where the British soldiers found charred bodies of women and children, Bell admits he does not have words to describe what happened and asks aloud: "What kind of people could to that?" Lieutenant Stewart answers: "Some swine deliberately set fire..." The head of the ECMM who is with them repeats in desperation: "absolutely shame... disgusting...people who did it must be punished..." Returning to angry Muslim fighters shown at the beginning of the report, Martin Bell concludes: "The need for revenge overwhelmed the need for peace." Harmon then asked Bell to confirm once again that all excerpts of the defence concerning Muslim offensive and Croat suffering...were filmed from 2 to 9 months after Ahmici.

As Bell said on several occasions that he considered Blaskic a "correct military officer", presiding Judge Claude Jorda asked him at the end of the testimony what he meant by that. Bell admitted that he "borrowed" the phrase from the Bosnian Serbs, who did not always like his reports, but considered him a "correct reporter." A "correct officer", he explained, "is somebody just doing the job he is paid for...and not overstepping any balance."

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