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Witness testimony appears to support defence claims that there was no organised army in Srebrenica.
By Merdijana Sadović
An American army officer and a British war reporter this week told judges at the trial of former Srebrenica commander Naser Oric about the “horrendous situation” in the besieged enclave.

Lieutenant Colonel Rex Dudley and journalist Tony Birtley, who both spent several weeks in Srebrenica in spring 1993, also challenged the testimony of a key prosecution witness who had said the accused was aware of the abuse of Serb detainees in the town's prison.

Their testimony seems to support some of the main defence arguments – that there was no organised army in the besieged enclave at that time and that nobody had effective control over groups of armed men gathered around their local leaders.

They also joined a long line of previous defence witnesses who claimed Oric was “first among equals” and didn't have much influence on the enclave’s “semi-autonomous armed groups”.

Oric, 37, is charged with responsibility for the murder and mistreatment of Serb detainees in the town's prison between 1992-93, and with wanton destruction of Serb property in the villages around Srebrenica in the same period, on the basis that he failed to prevent or punish the crimes.

Lt Col Rex Dudley, an American intelligence officer and trained military observer, arrived in Srebrenica on March 11, 1993 as a member of the UN team accompanying General Philippe Morillon, commander of the UN forces in Bosnia.

One of Dudley's main tasks was to establish who the “key players” were in order to carry out his mission. But, according to the witness, that was not an easy job.

”Who the actual leadership was within Srebrenica always remained fuzzy for me,” he said.

In military terms, he described the situation in and around the enclave as “asymmetric warfare”.

When asked by defence counsel John Jones “what was asymmetric about it?” Dudley explained that Serb forces around Srebrenica “had overwhelming combined arms power”, such as tanks, air defence artillery, mortars, multiple rocket launchers and “supporting aircraft flying over from Serbia, dropping bombs on the enclave”, while “all the Muslims had were some small arms and automatic weapons”.

“They were a rather motley group, armed mostly with hunting rifles, poorly clothed...and they appeared more like partisans than anything else, not a trained fighting force,” he said.

Dudley said he was not introduced to Naser Oric during his 17-day stay in Srebrenica, although he had requested to meet him, because his interpreter told him Naser was “the commander on the ground”.

Asked by the prosecutor Patricia Sellers why, in his opinion, that meeting never took place, the witness said he wasn't sure whether the accused “was unavailable or just unwilling” to meet him.

When Sellers asked Dudley if he had heard of Oric’s reputation as “a strong person, someone who might rule with a rod of iron”, he replied that he “never heard any personal reports of Naser that were not positive or complimentary to him” and that “any commander would have to apply tough love in that environment to keep his soldiers moving in the right direction”.

Dudley also added that his own assessment, based on what he had seen on the ground, was that Naser Oric was “first among equals”, thus supporting the defence argument that armed groups in Srebrenica gathered around several local leaders who refused to be put under central command.

In an apparent attempt to prove that Oric was also was aware of the mistreatment of Serb detainees held in the town's prison - something the defence has vigorously denied - in March this year prosecutors presented the testimony of British colonel Pyers William Tucker, who claimed the accused had personally handed over a Serb prisoner in terrible physical condition to UN troops on March 21, 1993.

Tucker, who was an assistant to General Morillon at that time, said he was shocked at what he saw, because the man, who was “bandaged” and unable to walk, "looked like the Jews who were rescued in 1945 from the German concentration camps".

But Dudley, who was also present when the handover took place, said he “didn't recall seeing Oric at the scene”. He added that the prisoner was very thin, but “this was a very typical appearance of a lot of people inside Srebrenica”, because “the entire population was starving at this time and most of them were malnourished”.

According to Dudley, the prisoner wasn’t wearing bandages and had “no signs of bruising, bleeding, or beating on his face”. He also told the court that Major Tucker, was “rarely a reliable source of information”.

British war reporter Tony Birtley, who was in Srebrenica that day and had filmed the whole event, corroborated Dudley's account.

He said he didn't remember seeing Oric at the prisoner handover and although the Serb detainee “looked extremely gaunt and weak”, Birtley said he didn't see any signs of beating on his face.

Ever since the beginning of the trial, prosecutors have tried to make a link between Oric and the mistreatment of Serb detainees. Colonel Tucker's testimony was about the strongest evidence relating to these detainees presented in court so far.

Birtley - whose reports on the dire situation in Srebrenica were smuggled out via UN convoys in March and April 1993 and later broadcast on major TV networks, such as ABC News and the BBC - also testified this week about a lack of central command among armed groups stationed in Srebrenica.

He told the court he had stayed at the shattered Domavija hotel with local military commander Hakija Meholjic - who also testified as a prosecution witness earlier this year - and said everybody referred to armed men gathered around him as “Hakija's men”.

According to Birtley, Meholjic had very little respect for Oric, who was at that time officially his superior.

“Hakija...said [Naser] was a brave guy but didn't have a military brain... He didn't really rate Naser as a military commander,” said Birtley.

During his three-and-half week stay in Srebrenica in 1993 – which ended with a severe shrapnel wound to his leg – Birtley recorded between 10 and 12 hours of video material, parts of which were played in court during various stages of Oric’s trial.

He was also named TV Journalist of the Year 1993 by the Royal Television Society in Britain for his work in Bosnia.

The Oric trial will resume in January next year.

Merdijana Sadovic is an IWPR contributor based in Sarajevo.

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