Regional Report: Sarajevo Mourns Alagic

Bosniak commander’s wartime glory followed by post-war disgrace.

Regional Report: Sarajevo Mourns Alagic

Bosniak commander’s wartime glory followed by post-war disgrace.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

Bosnia’s former general Mehmed Alagic, who died of a heart attack while preparing his defence before The Hague, was a pivotal figure during the Bosnian war.

His exploits in leading his men through winter snow to capture Mount Vlasic from Serb forces in 1995 earned him the nickname “Hannibal”.

Alagic was facing charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity when he died earlier this month.

His wartime glory, though, was followed by post-war disgrace.

When war ended he moved to Sanski Most, the town of his birth, and became mayor – only to fall foul of the international community.

He was sacked for breaking the terms of the Dayton peace agreement, then jailed for corruption by the Bosnian authorities before being charged for war crimes offences by The Hague tribunal.

The retired general of the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina died on Friday, March 7, of a heart attack, at the age of 56.

Mehmed Alagic was born on July 8, 1946, in the village of Fajtovci, in the municipality of Sanski Most. He graduated from the Yugoslav army academy in 1970 in Banja Luka, and joined the tank forces.

Alagic was subsequently appointed head of a college for military reserve officers in Banja Luka and later led an infantry brigade headquarters in Zrenjanin (Serbia) in 1989.

But by then Yugoslavia was starting to disintegrate and the army’s officer corps was beginning to split along ethnic lines. On February 27, 1991, he left the army, and immediately began organising resistance in Bosnia.

Bosnia was not yet a state, but Muslims and others committed to uniting the republic had begun setting up territorial defence units for possible war. Alagic, as one of the few army-trained Muslim former officers, was quickly accepted and began preparing units of the Patriotic League of Bosnia.

In April 1992 war broke out. He officially enrolled in the new Bosnian army on January 13, 1993 – first as an ordinary soldier in the 17th Krajina Brigade, a unit largely made up of Muslims exiled from their homes by Serb forces.

The 17th brigade lacked weapons, transport, ammunition and radios, but its soldiers were well motivated – Bosnia at that time had seen Serb forces ethnically cleanse nearly half the territory.

In April, war came on a second front, when Croat separatist forces in the south began their own ethnic cleansing, hitting Muslim settlements along the Lasva valley in central Bosnia.

Alagic’s forces struck back. In one of the first government victories of the war, they smashed through Croat forces at the edge of the valley, captured the town of Travnik and surrounded Croats in a pocket anchored on Vitez and Busovaca.

Opinion was divided about Alagic’s military skills. Strategically, he was admired for holding together an army outgunned by both Serb and Croat enemies.

But he was also criticised by military observers for launching badly coordinated and unsupported attacks against the Vitez pocket, long after it was clear the Croats had built strong layered defences.

On November 1, 1993, Alagic became the commander of the 3rd Corps of the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which incorporated the 17th Brigade and the 7th Muslim Brigade – two units responsible for defending central Bosnia.

On February 26, 1994, he was appointed commander of the 7th Corps – part of a re-organisation of the Bosnian government forces following the American-backed Washington Agreement that ended fighting between the mostly-Muslim government forces and Croat separatists.

His greatest military success included the liberation of Kupreska Vrata, in November 1994, seizing Mount Vlasic in March 1995 and the capture of the towns of Donji Vakuf and Kljuc in October 1995. The war ended with Alagic a hero – he liberated 2000 square kilometres.

After the war, he went into politics, joining the exclusively Muslim Democratic Action Party, SDA, of Alija Izetbegovic. He won election as mayor of Sanski Most and later became the town’s parliamentary deputy.

In July 1999, then international High Representative Carlos Westendorp sacked Alagic as mayor, saying he did not respect the Dayton Agreement.

Alagic had in the past hinted he might lead an attack from Sanski Most over the nearby Republika Srpska border to capture former Muslim towns if the Serbs continued refusing to let the former inhabitants return to their homes.

Then, on April 16, 2001, he was jailed for four years for abuse of office.

And the following January came his war crimes indictment: it was made in secret and he was arrested by NATO commandos at his house in Sanski Most shortly after being released early from jail.

He was indicted together with General Enver Hadzihasanovic and Colonel Amir Kubura, who both held commanding positions in the 3rd Corps from January 1993 to January 1994. All three are charged with war crimes against Croats and Serbs in central Bosnia.

Alagic was released on bail after appearing at The Hague in December 2001.

The alleged crimes were committed by foreign volunteers –including Islamic fighters known as mujahedin - as well as soldiers from the 7th Muslim Mountain Brigade.

Alagic’s defence was believed to be that he had no control over the activities of either unit, and that he had taken steps to prevent them carrying out atrocities.

His relations with the mujahedin were known to be tense – at one point, after complaints of mujahedin patrols in Zenica telling girls not to sunbathe or kiss boys, Alagic sent military police into the town to disarm all troops.

The Bosniak officers are charged with the violation of the laws and customs of war; and grave breaches of the Geneva conventions, including murder, inhumane treatment, illegal detentions in prison camps, robbery and destruction of property owned by Bosnian Croats and Serbs.

The news of Alagic's arrest triggered anger among the people of Sanski Most, who regarded him as a war hero.

Many of Alagic's fellow soldiers swore on their honour that he could not be classed as a war criminal. They said that the 3rd Corps was the best military unit in the Bosnian army – not just for combat effectiveness but also for the care of prisoners and civilians.

In protest against his arrest, the walls of Sanski Most were quickly covered with posters of him. A rally attended by about 15,000 people was organised in the town centre by the War Veterans Union, demobilised fighters and family members.

It was similar at his funeral, which was attended by around 20,000 people.

His death came at the time when he was on pre-trial release, preparing his defence for charges of war crimes.

Amra Kebo is commentator on the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje.

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