Markac Witness Denies Croat Forces Looted

Defendant’s deputy says he does not believe special police destroyed homes in Gracac.

Markac Witness Denies Croat Forces Looted

Defendant’s deputy says he does not believe special police destroyed homes in Gracac.

Saturday, 27 March, 2010

A witness in the Hague tribunal trial of Mladen Markac, former commander of the Croatian special police forces, denied this week that they took part in looting and burning of the village of Gracac after Operation Storm, an offensive aimed at retaking the Serb-held Krajina region in August 1995.

Zeljko Sacic, Markac’s deputy during Operation Storm, who gave most of his testimony in closed session, told judges that he did not believe the special police had committed acts of destruction in Gracac.

“[The special police] had a very clear instruction that they should not engage in looting and should conduct themselves in accordance with the rules of engagement and laws of war, and laws applicable in peacetime,” Sacic said. “If anybody did do this, he did it without any approval. These were looters that should have been sanctioned.”

Markac is accused, along with generals Ante Gotovina and Ivan Cermak, of participating in a joint criminal enterprise that resulted in crimes committed against Serb civilians during and after Operation Storm.

As commander of the special police, Markac oversaw the operation and functions of special police units from throughout Croatia that participated in the military offensive. The indictment charges Markac with permitting, denying and minimising ongoing criminal activity – including inhumane treatment and murder – by his subordinates during Operation Storm against the Krajina Serbs.

From July to September 1995, the indictment states, Gotovina, Cermak and Markac planned or participated in the systematic plundering and destruction of property owned or inhabited by the Krajina Serb population in the southern portion of the Krajina region, including the Donji Lapac and Gracac municipalities.

Prosecutor Prashanthi Mahindaratne questioned Sacic about the advance of forces towards Donji Lapac between August 4 and 8, 1995, during which Sacic and Markac had both entered the town.

Sacic told the judges about a meeting held on August 7, after the town had been captured, where subordinates had been congratulated on their “great military success”.

“I do suppose Markac shared in the joy just as I did and was present,” Sacic said.

Sacic told the judges that the special police force units remained in the area until August 9, when the municipality was handed over to the Croatian army, HV, home guard units.

“I personally gathered all the available forces who were physically and mentally fit and upon receiving approval from Markac, set out for the state border with them,” Sacic said. “I’m convinced that in Donji Lapac, save for the logistics base which had several logistics officers and men in charge of the communications system and security detail, there weren’t more than 40 or 50 men [left in the town].”

Mahindaratne pointed out that in his interview with the Office of The Prosecutor, OTP, in 2005, Sacic said that he left the town with the main body of troops and “more than 100 or 200 people stayed behind” around the police station.

“Today I would say even fewer,” Sacic told the judges this week. “Well, in theory, complete with medical teams, there could have been up to 100.”

Sacic told the judges that he did not think Markac had stayed in Donji Lapac after August 7.

“He had other duties to attend to,” he said. “I’m sure he went back to the Gracac staff, as there were major activities taking place that day.”

The prosecution read from Sacic’s statement again, where Sacic stated that Markac had stayed in Donji Lapac after Sacic had moved towards the Bosnian border. “[Markac] didn’t really have a choice,” Mahindaratne read from the transcript. “He had to go where the majority of forces were. He came to Donji Lapac. They were bombing there.”

The prosecution asked Sacic to reconcile the discrepancies between his statement and his current testimony.

“I’m sure [Markac] went back that same evening as I was advancing,” Sacic told the judges. “He, for a number of other reasons related to the main staff, had to leave Donji Lapac because there was no reason for the commander in chief to stay there.”

Sacic added that he had to physically be at his forward command post as the army was under attack.

“I really did not know anything about the destruction [in Donji Lapac],” he told the judges. “That was not the focus of my interest. My task there was crucial to repel the attack and prevent the advance of some troops of the army of the Republika Srpska.”

The prosecution read from Sacic’s statement, where he said that he heard on August 9 that “something was burning” in Donji Lapac, but that the special police didn’t take part in that as they were on the outskirts of town. “Donji Lapac was destroyed, that’s a fact now,” Sacic said, according to his statement.

Mahindaratne asked if Sacic had changed his mind about what he knew at the time about destruction in Donji Lapac.

“I personally saw the burning and said that yesterday before this chamber,” Sacic told the judges. “I saw a building that was on fire… I saw there were some vehicles on the side of the road because of the artillery attacks. There was broken glass, but it wasn’t destroyed. The road was passable….”

The prosecution cited a report from commanders Branislav Bole and Zdravko Janic, discussing destruction in Donji Lapac that had been directed to Sacic. Mahindaratne showed Sacic a portion of the document where someone had written by hand, “Call General Markac and inform him.” The prosecutor asked Sacic to identify the handwriting.

“That is unfortunately my handwriting,” Sacic said. “Obviously this… informs [Markac] of the incident and the burning…. Although I don’t recall the very act of how I informed him but it says here in my handwriting that I did do it.”

The court has received evidence that 90 per cent of the houses along the road were burned and destroyed, the prosecution said, and that members of the special police were present in the area when buildings were still ablaze.

“Did you see special police members standing on front of burning houses?” Mahindaratne asked.

“No, absolutely not,” Sacic said.

In addition, Sacic told the judges that he had not seen special police members looting in the village of Gracac on August 8.

Sacic described arriving in Gracac on the evening of August 5, when he could see a house on fire somewhere on the outskirts of the town.

“General Markac told me expressly and I told commanders expressly that no cases of looting, torching or anything else irregular would be tolerated,” Sacic said. “Regular security needs to be enforced as soon as possible.”

Sacic added that when the military police arrived on August 6, he told the units to ensure no arson took place.

The prosecution said that the chamber had received evidence that property was burning on the outskirts of Gracac as late as August 8.

Mahindaratne asked, “Explain to the trial chamber how three days after the completion of the offensive, property could be burning in Gracac.”

“This is surprising indeed that houses were on fire but I cannot answer your question as to why this happened,” Sacic said. “I wasn’t there. Nobody informed me until a later date that there were houses on fire.”

The trial continues next week.

Julia Hawes is an IWPR contributor. 

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