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REGIONAL REPORT: Bosnian Serbs Play Down Srebrenica

Official document claiming only 2,500 Muslim "combatants" lost their lives in 1995 massacre is met with fierce condemnation.
By Gordana Katana

A Bosnian Serb attempt to play down the horror of the Srebrenica massacre has been met by a chorus of local and international outrage.


The anger focused on a September 3 report by the Republika Srpska Government Bureau for Cooperation with The Hague war crimes tribunal, ICTY.


The report claimed that those killed in the eastern Bosnian Muslim enclave of Srebrenica in July 1995 - viewed as the worst atrocity in Europe since the Second World War - were far fewer than the figure generally claimed.


Bosnia's top western mediator, High Representative Paddy Ashdown, issued a statement saying, "Pretending it (the massacre) didn't happen is an insult to people of all ethnic groups in Bosnia-Herzegovina.


"It is tendentious, preposterous and inflammatory, and I would hope no responsible politician would allow their name to be associated with it, particularly in advance of an election (parliamentary elections on October 5) that should be about the country's future, not rewriting its past."


The furious international response prompted the Republika Srpksa, RS, authorities to try to distance themselves from the report, claiming it had been compiled by one of their bureaux but had not been fully analysed and endorsed by the government.


In another apparent attempt to back away, RS premier Mladen Ivanic said his government will not formally review the report's findings until after the October 5 elections.


UN reports, ICTY estimates, NATO surveillance and survivors' testimonies put the Srebrenica death toll at between 7,000 and 8,000 Muslims, many of them executed and buried in mass graves.


However, the Bosnian Serb report insists that 2,500 Muslim soldiers died at most - and were killed in combat. It claims that only "a couple of hundred men" could have been executed by angry Bosnian Serb soldiers unaware of international laws regarding prisoners of war.


It also accused the UN Security Council of permitting Bosnian Muslim forces in Srebrenica "to do whatever they liked" in a zone which had been declared a "safe haven" as far back as 1993.


Its authors claim the 28th division of the Bosnian Muslim army killed more than 500 Serbian villagers in attacks mounted from the protected zone.


It was because of this, the report said, that Bosnian Serb forces decided to enter Srebrenica "and bring to an end attacks against Serb civilians and their vital supply corridor".


In a chapter entitled "The Fall of Srebrenica", the document claims that on July 6, 1995, when the town's defences began to collapse, "Muslim forces were in a state of hysteria and disarray, believing that Bosnian Serb forces would kill all the Muslims they found".


The report quoted an interview given to the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje in August 1996 by the enclave's commander Naser Oric, who said "between 10,000 and 15,000 Muslim soldiers left Srebrenica and headed for the woods".


The report claims these soldiers were killed in action by their Bosnian Serb counterparts, and denies that there was any massive retaliation against Bosniaks after the fall of the town.


According to this account, some 750 Bosniak men surrendered and were either held as prisoners of war or exchanged for Serb captives via the International Red Cross.


The RS report also contradicted The Hague tribunal investigators who said they found Srebrenica victims buried in mass graves, arguing that as these sites were located on or near former front lines, they must have contained only combat casualties.


Eva Klonovska, a key forensic expert from the International Commission for Missing Persons, ICMP, who participated in exhumations on all Srebrenica-related mass graves, told local media that most of the victims found in graves appeared to be non-combatants or prisoners, since they were either in civilian clothes, were killed from close range or had had their hands tied.


However, the Bosnian Serb report went even further, accusing Muslims of exaggerating the number of victims in order to create conflict between Serbs and the international community.


According to Dejan Miletic, head of the RS government bureau for cooperation with The Hague, the main purpose of the report was to inform people at home and abroad about "the magnitude of crimes committed from 1992 to 1995 by the members of Bosnian army against Serbs in the area of Srebrenica". He claimed 1,300 persons of Serbian origin had died in the area.


Sinisa Djordjevic, Mladen Ivanic's advisor on The Hague tribunal, suggested the report had been commissioned in order to discuss the Srebrenica issue fully, lay it to rest and then move on.


These professed good intentions were not evident at a press conference given in conjunction with the report. Journalists were shown only a part of the BBC documentary on Srebrenica titled A Cry from the Grave - and that was the section where Naser Oric complained about attacks on Serbians.


The rest of the programme, which listed evidence of thousands of mass killings, was never shown to the press. It has never been aired on any public television stations in RS.


ICTY representatives were among the loudest critics of the report, claiming it was directly or indirectly aimed at undermining both previous and future trials connected to the massacre.


"Any such claim ... is simply outrageous," the ICTY's Sarajevo Outreach Office spokesperson, Refik Hodzic, told a press conference. He added that the RS report was an attempt to undermine the tribunal and some of its trial, including that of General Radislav Krstic, commander of the Bosnian Serb Drina Corps, which was responsible for the Srebrenica region.


Hodzic stressed that Krstic himself had never challenged the prosecution figure of 7,000-8,000 victims during the course of his trial.


The tribunal sentenced him to 45 years in prison for genocide - the first such ruling since the Nuremberg trials.


Gordana Katana is a correspondent with Voice of America in Banja Luka