Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Regional Report: Top Secret Croat Unit Captured Suspect

The arrest and extradition of indicted fugitive Ivica Rajic should ease international pressure on the Racan government.
By Drago Hedl

Croatia has formed a special police unit purely to arrest war crimes suspects – and it’s so secret that not even the interior ministry is told of its operations.


Instead, the unit reports directly to Prime Minister Ivica Racan.


The existence of the unit was revealed with the capture of war crimes suspect Ivica Rajic earlier this month. The arrest also showed the reason for the secrecy surrounding the unit.


Rajic was indicted eight years ago in connection with the massacre of Muslims at Stupni Do in 1993. He vanished soon after.


Then – to everyone’s surprise - he was found to be living in Split, in an apartment which was given to him by the defence ministry. He was later found to have been helped in his stay by local police in Split, who had issued him with false identity documents.


Racan’s special police staked out the apartment, but did not pounce. They were hoping that Rajic would lead them to an even bigger prize – the missing general Ante Gotovina, a top war crimes suspect.


Official sources say Gotovina is the reason why the unit was formed in the first place.


In conditions of great secrecy – with the local police and interior ministry kept ignorant – the special unit watched the apartment until it become clear that there was no link to Gotovina. So they pounced – arresting Rajic and sending him to The Hague.


The secrecy is there for good reason: The police and security services still contain many men sympathetic to the Democratic Union, HDZ, the nationalist party of the late president Franjo Tudjman which had close links with many of the men subsequently charged with war crimes.


“Do you think Rajic could have kept hidden so successfully for almost eight years if he did not have the support of the intelligence, police and military underworld?” one source in the ruling coalition told IWPR.


“Rajic had forged documents issued by the police in Split. Whenever there was an attempt to arrest him earlier, someone from the police would inform him and he would hide in time. If we had not formed this special unit of proven, men we would never have caught him.”


Rajic is indicted for war crimes in the Muslim village of Stupni Do where, as commander of the Second Operative Group of the Bosnian Croat army, HVO, he was in charge of an operation in which at least 16 civilians were killed in October 1993.


Due to pressure from the international community, then Croatian president Franjo Tudjman demanded Rajic’s dismissal. But the latter enjoyed vast support from then powerful Croatian defence minister Gojko Susak. Rajic was given a new identity, and continued his activities in the Bosnian Croat army under the name Viktor Andric.


Members of the secret police who were sent from Croatia to investigate the slaughter in Stupni Do were themselves killed - and Rajic was blamed for their deaths.


Rajic’s arrest is very important for the Racan government, which has come under increasing pressure from the tribunal’s chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, who has frequently accused Zagreb of not doing enough to apprehend Gotovina.


Del Ponte is due to visit Zagreb later this month, and news of Rajic’s arrest - and the disclosure of the unit formed to get him - will be strong trump cards in Zagreb’s deck.


Political analysts in Zagreb say that hardline nationalists retain important posts throughout the intelligence-military-police structure - similar to the grip nationalists had on Serbia before the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic on March 12.


Since then, Belgrade has begun wide-ranging purges - but no such operations have been initiated in Croatia.


The question now is whether Zagreb can summon up the will for such a purge.


A good place to start would be the arrest of the police and interior ministry officials who, for eight years, conspired to hide Rajic.


Drago Hedl is an IWPR contributor in Croatia.