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Karadzic Witness Denies Mortar Attack Happened

Former Serb officer says heavy mortar unit was redeployed before Markale market was struck.
By Rachel Irwin
  • Stevan Veljovic, defence witness in the Karadzic trial. (Photo: ICTY)
    Stevan Veljovic, defence witness in the Karadzic trial. (Photo: ICTY)

A former officer in the Bosnian Serb army testified at the Hague tribunal this week that it would have been impossible for a mortar shell to hit Sarajevo’s Markale Market in August 1995, as prosecutors claim it did.

“I don’t think that a [120 millimetre] shell can fall on Markale…these are weapons I know very well. In order to hit such a location – well that’s simply impossible. I’d stake my life on that,” said defence witness Stevan Veljovic, who was testifying on behalf of wartime Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic.

The accused has long claimed that the August 28, 1995 attack on Markale market – which killed some 34 people and wounded more than twice that number – was staged by the Bosnian government army and not perpetrated by Serb forces for which he was responsible.

This was the second of two major attacks on the Markale market, and should not be confused with the one that occurred in February 1994.

The argument that the 1995 attack was staged was rejected in the 2007 tribunal verdict against Dragomir Milosevic, the former commander of the Bosnian Serb army’s Sarajevo Romanija Corps, who is now serving a 29 year prison sentence.

Prosecutors allege that Karadzic, the president of Bosnia's self-declared Republika Srpska from 1992 to 1996, planned and oversaw the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that ravaged the city and left nearly 12,000 people dead. Karadzic’s army is accused of deliberately sniping at and shelling the city’s civilian population in order to “spread terror” among them.

The indictment alleges that Karadzic was 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".

He was arrested in Belgrade in July 2008 after 13 years on the run, and represents himself in the courtroom.

Karadzic told the court that witness Veljovic held various posts in the Sarajevo Romanija Corps during the war. As of early August 1995, the witness was commander of the 4th Sarajevo Brigade.

The accused read out a brief summary of Veljovic’s witness statement, which included the assertion that the 120-millimetre mortar battery located in Sarajevo was sent to the southeastern municipality of Trebinje in August 1995 to assist Bosnian Serb forces there. Thus, such a mortar could not have been used to strike Markale, Karadzic told the court.

The accused did not ask any further questions of the witness.

During the prosecution’s cross examination, lawyer Carolyn Edgerton seized on Veljovic’s claims regarding the 1995 Markale attack. She pointed out that when the witness testified in the Dragomir Milosevic case, he never denied that the incident occurred, and did not mention that the mortar battery had been sent away from Sarajevo.

“Which testimony are we supposed to rely on?” Edgerton asked at one point.

The witness insisted that the army had sent the mortar battery to Trebinje before the August 28 attack on Markale, and was not responsible for the massacre.

Instead, he said, the munition that exploded in the market was “planted and activated by remote control”.

“Our opinion was that the Muslim forces had done this for propaganda purposes,” Veljovic said, adding that he did not mention these matters in his previous testimony because he was not asked about them.

Edgerton pressed the point, especially as regards Veljovic’s new claim that the mortar battery had been moved out of the city.

“This incident is one of the single most controversial events in the history of the conflict around Sarajevo. In the [Dragomir] Milosevic case, you were testifying at the last opportunity to provide that evidence, and you’re saying it didn’t even occur to you to bring it up,” the lawyer said.

Karadzic’s legal advisor Peter Robinson objected before the witness could answer, but the prosecutor continued to press the witness on the issue.

“You had an opportunity in [the Dragomir Milosevic] proceedings to talk about that mortar battery, and are you asserting now that the only reason you chose not to raise it was because you weren’t asked?” Edgerton asked.

Robinson again objected, saying, “That’s an unfair question. He doesn’t have the opportunity to raise issues. He can only answer what he is asked. She’s making a point that this [was] omitted from the Milosevic testimony, and that’s as far as she can go with it.”

“Fair enough,” presiding Judge O-Gon Kwon replied.

Prosecutor Edgerton then turned to a Bosnian Serb army report on the “availability of ammunition and fuel for combat vehicles” dated August 31, 1995 and signed by Veljovic himself.

The report, Edgerton said, listed the number of weapons and vehicles available to Veljovic’s unit, and included “some self-propelled guns and a number of mortars, including 120-millimetre mortars”.

“It seems that this document, dated 31 August 1995, puts in doubt your assertion that your brigade’s mortar battery was out of the Sarajevo theatre,” Edgerton said to the witness.

Veljovic contended that there was “nothing surprising” about this.

“I listed all the equipment that belonged to a number of battalions. I made a list of all material and equipment in order to be sure we had them,” he said.

The prosecutor then moved onto the topic of aerial bombs, which the Bosnian Serb army is accused of using on Sarajevo. They were modified so that they could be launched at targets from the ground.

Veljovic confirmed that the air bombs were “not concise” and the army was “only allowed to use them in wild areas” because they could cause so much damage. They were not used in urban areas “because we might hit our own men or civilians”, he added.

He said that it “should have been the case” that corps or brigade commander would decide on how to use the air bombs, with approval of the army’s main staff.

Edgerton then showed him a report that the Sarajevo Romanija Corps sent the main staff on April 7, 1995 which stated that a 250-kilogram aerial bomb was fired into the Hrasnica area of Sarajevo.

“This document suggests that something happened other than what you said,” Edgerton said.

The witness said that the detonation of such a large aerial bomb would have “such a destructive power” and would be heard “60 kilometres away”.

He said that the United Nations Protection Force in Sarajevo, known as UNPROFOR, would have recorded an incident like this, but that “they never mentioned anything of that kind happening in the territory of the city of Sarajevo”.|

“Are you then saying this didn’t happen?” Edgerton asked.

“It didn’t happen,” the witness said, adding that during his previous testimony, he saw UNPROFOR reports which stated that everything was “calm” in Sarajevo.

Hrasnica, he said, is very close to the city’s airport and UNPROFOR “would have heard [the blast]; they would have informed someone about it. This never happened.”

Edgerton then read aloud from a Bosnian Serb army report, sent from the main staff to Karadzic himself and dated April 7, 1995. It stated that “the enemy activity was adequately responded to whereby an air bomb [of] 250 kilograms was launched on the centre of Hrasnica.”

“This document says not only that Karadzic was informed [but] contradicts your assertion that it didn’t happen,” Edgerton said.

“I don’t know what the main staff told the supreme command. I don’t know anything about that. That’s why I referred to the UNPROFOR report covering the four-day period which was relevant and coincided with this event. For that period, they stated that the situation in Sarajevo was calm,” the witness said.

Edgerton pointed out that Veljovic had previously testified that he knew everything that was happening in the brigade and was also involved in drafting such reports.

“So what should we rely on, Mr. Veljovic?” Edgerton asked.

The witness reiterated that he did not draft the report, that he did not know anything about the bomb being launched, and that “only UNPROFOR could know about that”.

“So in contrast to what you said in the Milosevic case, and what you said today – that the bomb wasn’t launched – you’re now saying you didn’t know anything about it. Is that correct?” Edgerton asked.

“I didn’t know anything about that. I told you that the detonation would have been heard at 60 kilometres away. The UNPROFOR soldiers were there; they would have heard it,” the witness said again.

Judge Kwon then interjected to say it was “difficult to follow” Veljovic’s testimony.

“It’s a separate thing to say that the aerial bomb was not launched at all and saying you don’t know. Even after having looked at the documents that say that the aerial bomb was launched, you are still saying that the bomb was not launched, which means that these reports were lying at the time,” the judge said.

The witness responded that “maybe at that moment” he was not there and was not in a position to know whether the bomb had been launched.

“If UNPROFOR had confirmed the launch, then yes, it happened. I don’t know who signed this on behalf of the Sarajevo Romanija Corps, on behalf of the main staff, and sent it to President Karadzic,” Veljovic said.

The judge again questioned the witness’s assertions.

“So, to be sure, is it your submission that if the UNPROFOR report doesn’t confirm the content of this [army] document, this [air bomb incident] is not true?” he asked.

“Yes, because maybe that day I was in Rogatica and that’s why I didn’t know about that bomb. Maybe I was at home…. If the UNPROFOR report confirmed there was a launch, then yes, but they said it was calm, so there was no launch,” the witness said.

The trial will continue next week.

Rachel Irwin is IWPR’s Senior Reporter in The Hague.

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