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REGIONAL REPORT: Croatia: Gotovina Defence's Gamble

Croatia's fugitive general may surrender to the Hague tribunal if Washington releases files on Operation Storm.
By Dominic Hipkins

Supporters of the war crimes suspect Ante Gotovina are fueling speculation that the fugitive Croatian army general is planning to hand himself over to The Hague tribunal.

The political weekly Nacional recently carried interviews with unnamed friends of the fugitive, suggesting he may be prepared to end his eight-month flight from justice. However, Luka Miscetic, the lawyer representing Gotovina, says any surrender is conditional on the US opening its archives to provide material for his defence.

This would shed light on America's role in Operation Storm, the Croatian offensive Gotovina commanded in August 1995 that led to the recapture of the self-proclaimed Republic of Srpska Krajina, RSK. Gotovina is held responsible for numerous atrocities that forced the displacement of up to 200,000 Krajina Serbs.

Miscetic believes US intelligence archives contain photos from unmanned spy planes and satellite imagery that can prove Gotovina is innocent of these crimes. "If this information was made available by the US it would remove General Gotovina's perception of an unfair tribunal trial," said Miscetic, speaking from Chicago.

Although he claims to have had no contact with the general, who went into hiding last June, before his indictment was made public, Miscetic is confident Gotovina is "ready to respond".

A US embassy source in Zagreb suggested Washington would look favourably on requests for specific documentation made through official channels. According to Miscetic, the investigators have not yet done this.

Miscetic said potential defence witnesses from America had already approached the Gotovina camp, describing them as "former US special forces on the ground during Operation Storm who say they saw nothing wrong [in Storm]". He claims US personnel were in a position to" know everything that was happening" and were not aware of atrocities.

Miscetic says the former US ambassador to Croatia, Peter Galbraith, heads the list of US witnesses Gotovina may wish to call. "Galbraith knows there were no town- by- town expulsions," he said.

Galbraith told the magazine Newsweek last summer that the Krajina Serbs left ahead of the arrival of the Croatian army. "You can't deport somebody who has already left," he said.

Independent observers credit Croatian claims that its military forces were provided with US intelligence. Former BBC Balkans correspondent Martin Bell said, "US help for the Croatian army was an open secret." Gotovina's defence team have argued that audio and video tapes show private US military advisers were present alongside Gotovina on the eve of battle.

These tapes supposedly show the man held responsible for the murders or disappearance of hundreds of civilians instructing Croatian troops to adhere to the rules of war. "Only losers kill civilians and we are going to win," Gotovina is alleged to have urged in one recording, preserved along with Gotovina's handwritten battle orders.

The testimony of UN peacekeepers - some of whom were killed during Operation Storm - is thought to have been crucial in constructing the Gotovina indictment, particularly concerning the massive artillery assault on the rebel capital, Knin.

Alain Fourand, a former Canadian commander of the UN Protection Force, UNPROFOR, wrote to Gotovina to protest that the target "was not a military target," according to testimony leaked to the Canadian press in 1998. Fourand promised to inform international investigators of the barrage, which his colleague Colonel Andrew Leslie criticised as "ethnic cleansing".

However, their account clashes with that of Pentagon lawyers who two years ago argued that the shelling was a legitimate military activity.

Milorad Pupovac, a Croatian Serb spokesman, says audiences he addressed in Washington on the eve of Operation Storm were resigned to Croatia settling the Krajina issue with arms. "The Americans said talks (on Krajina) were going nowhere," said Pupovac, who warned diplomats a refugee catastrophe could follow. He says caution over a Croatian military attack was overlooked in favour of a speedy end to a war that would lead to the US-brokered Dayton Peace Accords for Bosnia of November 1995.

The Dayton deal was conditional on Croatia settling the Krajina affair. It was only after Croatia's July 1995 victory over the Croatian Serbs that a joint Bosnian-Croat and Bosniak offensive in Bosnia was able to roll back Serb gains there and push them towards the negotiating table. At Dayton, the latter had to settle for less than 50 per cent of Bosnia's territory, down from more than two-thirds they held six months before.

The Croats claim that the mass deportations of Serbs from Krajina alleged in the indictment were the responsibility of Belgrade. Awkwardly for the Hague prosecutor, such sentiments seem once to have been shared by current spokeswoman Florence Hartmann. A former journalist for Le Monde, Hartmann penned a book suggesting Serbs from Krajina were "evacuated so Milosevic could hold on to territory in Bosnia during (the Dayton) peace negotiations".

This suggests that Milosevic urged Krajina Serbs to leave, to make it easier for the Serbs in Bosnia to keep the bulk of their vast gains. The defence may call Hartmann in Gotovina's defence if only to embarrass the tribunal.

The defence also points out other weaknesses in the indictment. The charges claims a state of armed conflict existed in Croatia until November 15, 1995, nine weeks after Croatian authorities announced the completion of Storm and the restoration of civilian political control over the region.

Most of the murders occurred in the weeks after Storm's official end. This is set out in both the appendix of victims in Gotovina's indictment and the field reports of human rights groups such as the Croatian Helsinki Committee. The general's defence holds that there is a contradiction in their client being held to account for post-battle abuses when The Hague only has jurisdiction over crimes committed during periods of war.

The defence will also point out that the indictment was partially compiled with the assistance of Veritas, a body that documents human rights abuses against Serbs. It will say that leading members of the group formerly served as officials in the RSK, whose establishment is condemned as the work of a "joint criminal enterprise" in the Croatia indictment against Slobodan Milosevic.

Dominik Hipkins is a freelance journalist based in Croatia.