Gotovina Defence Seek to Counter Random Shelling Claims

Expert witness criticises prosecution witness contention that Croatian army indiscriminately shelled Serb civilian areas.

Gotovina Defence Seek to Counter Random Shelling Claims

Expert witness criticises prosecution witness contention that Croatian army indiscriminately shelled Serb civilian areas.

A retired United Sates army officer appearing in the trial of three Croatian generals this week criticised a report presented by another expert witness in which he described Croatian army, HV, shelling of the town of Knin in 1995 as an unlawful attack aimed at expelling Serb civilians.



Geoffrey Corn appeared as an expert witness for the defence in the trial of Ante Gotovina, Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac at the Hague tribunal.



A former US military legal adviser, Corn had contacted Gotovina's defence team upon discovering what he said were mistakes in an analysis presented by prosecution witness Dutch lieutenant-colonel Harry Konings, during his testimony at the tribunal earlier this year.



Konings’ study looked at the use of artillery by the HV in Operation Storm, aimed at retaking Croatian territory from Serb rebels in August 1995.



In this report, Konings described the HV’s attack on Knin on August 4, 1995, as inappropriate, illegal and aimed at expelling Serbian civilians from the town.



He argued in his testimony that according to military regulations, artillery should only be used against targets where there is no possibility of collateral damage. He claimed that in Operation Storm this had not been observed.



He also said that during some attacks, no effort had been made to direct fire towards military targets and away from civilian areas.



Gotovina, Cermak and Markac are on trial for war crimes committed by Croatian troops during and after the operation, and are accused of conspiring to expel Serbs from eastern Croatia.



The indictment says that at that time, Gotovina was the overall operational commander of Operation Storm in the southern portion of the Krajina region, while Cermak was the Knin garrison commander and Markac was in charge of special police.



According to the indictment, troops under their control committed murder, torture and looting during and after the military operation. At least 37 Serbs were killed around that time, while Croatian troops were also engaged in the destruction and plundering of villages inhabited by Krajina Serbs, the indictment continues.



During the operation, “Croatian forces shelled civilian areas, entered civilian Serb settlements at night, and threatened those civilians who had not already fled, with gunfire and other intimidation”, the indictment states.



This week, defence witness Corn challenged what he said were a number of mistakes in Konings’ report on the HV’s use of shelling.



He cited the finding in Konings’ report that so-called “forward spotters” weren't used at all during some attacks on towns under enemy control.



Konings’ report said it was necessary to employ forward spotters – a military term for someone who directs troops’ fire towards an intended target – during artillery attacks in order to achieve accuracy and avoid hitting civilian areas.



Corn acknowledged to the court that using forward spotters to direct attacks could improve accuracy.



“It is absolutely true that the use of forward spotters for direct fire is an ideal situation from the operational and humanitarian points of view. Operationally, the possibility of achieving a desired effect with the use of minimum resources increases. From the humanitarian point of view, the commander gets a better picture of potential collateral damage,” the witness explained.



However, he then went on to disagree with a paragraph in Konings’ report, which he said suggested that military targets in civilian areas should not be attacked unless forward spotters were used to direct fire.



“The tone of the paragraph suggests that unless you have targets in a populated area under human control, that is, unless you have forward spotters, you should not engage those targets,” Corn said.



To illustrate his point that it was necessary under some circumstances to launch indirect attacks on populated areas, Corn cited as an example the hundreds of cruise missiles that were fired on Baghdad in 2003 following the US-led invasion of the country that year.



“The enemy (Iraqis) used populated areas as their strongholds and the allies (US-led forces) routinely used indirect fire to defeat those forces,” Corn noted.



The witness then cited part of Konings’ report in which the Dutch expert said that indirect fire could be used only in situations where those firing knew that there were either no civilians present or that this would have no effect on civilians.



Corn disagreed with this, arguing that collateral damage was “an unfortunate aspect of warfare”.



The witness acknowledged that any military commander would be obliged to think about the consequences of an attack and to ensure that military targets in an area populated by civilians were attacked in accordance with the law of armed conflict.



However, the witness added that to claim that indirect fire must not be used at all where there was any possibility of collateral damage – as Konings appeared to suggest in his report – was to distort the rules and laws which govern military action.



“Dutch artillery expert Harry Konings inexplicably distorts the military doctrine,” Corn said.



During the cross-examination, the prosecution tried to undermine the witness’s testimony.



It put it to Corn that when he formed his conclusions about the use of artillery fire by Croatian troops during Operation Storm, he had mainly used information given to him by the defence, rather than documents submitted as evidence in the trial.



In response, Corn asked the prosecutor to provide examples of this.



The prosecution then recalled the reports of a number of United Nations peace-keeping observers submitted as evidence in the case which said that during the attack on Knin, the entire town was targeted by the shells fired by the HV.



Corn said that in their report, those observers did not actually make this claim, but had merely said that this was their impression of events. He added that it was possible that they had the wrong impression because they didn’t know where the military targets were in the town.



The prosecution then confronted the witness with a document containing a command issued by Gotovina on August 2, 1995.



According to the prosecution, which quoted from the order, the general had told his troops “to shell the first enemy defences’ lines, command centres, artillery positions and to put under artillery fire the towns of Drvar [in Bosnia and Hercegovina], Knin, Obrovac, Benkovac and Gracac”.



The witness acknowledged that from this command, it was possible to get the impression that Gotovina was ordering attacks on all parts of these towns.



However, he said that there was a second, more likely explanation, that Gotovina asked his forces to hit only the “military targets” in these towns.



The trial continues next week.



Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR reporter in Zagreb.
Support our journalists