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Serbian Red Berets Chief "Not in Command of Anything"

Defence witness suggests Franko Simatovic’s role was restricted to information-gathering about military operation, rather than instructing paramilitary groups.
By Velma Šarić
  • Mladen Karan, defence witness for Simatovic. (Photo: ICTY)
    Mladen Karan, defence witness for Simatovic. (Photo: ICTY)

Although he commanded an elite Serbian unit during the Bosnian conflict, Franko Simatovic did not actually exert much authority, a defence witness told the Hague tribunal this week.

Mladen Karan, who appeared as a defence witness for Simatovic, is a retired colonel in the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA. After serving as an intelligence officer in the JNA, he was later part of the dispatched into the Serb Army of Krajina, SVK, established in breakaway Serb parts of Croatia in the early 1990s.

Simatovic and Jovica Stanisic, both former State Security, DB, officers in Serbia, are on trial facing charges that they participated in a joint criminal enterprise intended to forcibly and permanently remove non-Serbs from large areas of Croatia and Bosnia through persecution, murder and deportation.

Stanisic served as DB head from 1991 to 1998,and Simatovic worked under his command as head of a special forces unit known as JSO or the Red Berets.

According to the indictment, Stanisic and Simatovic established, organised and financed training centres for paramilitary units from Serbia which were then sent into Croatia and Bosnia, where they committed crimes and forced non-Serb populations out of the towns and villages which they took control of.

In court, the witness said he had seen Simatovic in the Krajina area of Croatia on several occasions, including when he – Karan – was deployed with the Pauk operation in 1993.

The Pauk operation to seize control of part of northwest Bosnia is alleged to have been ordered by Serb political leaders in Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia. It involved a mixed force including the SVK, paramilitary units like “Arkan's Tigers”, and troops under Fikret Abdic, a Bosniak who had rebelled against the government in Sarajevo.

Karan confirmed the defence’s assertion that there was no command-structure link between Serbia’s DB – and by extension the two defendants – and either the SVK itself or the Serb paramilitaries deployed in the SVK’s operational area.

“Arkan's Tigers were following instructions of the 11th Corps of the SVK, which was a unit parallel to that in which I was deployed,” the witness answered, adding, “I guess you could say that [the SVK] commanded them.”

Asked about his contacts with Simatovic, he replied he never felt the accused was “in command of anything”.

“While I was deployed at the Pauk command staff, I remember seeing Simatovic several times, although he was only there in passing, without any specific role,” Karan said. “He seemed to be collecting information, and I wasn't quite sure what his role was at the time, nor did he give any specific information or [still] less any orders.”

In cross-examination, prosecutor Maxine Marcus turned to the witness’s statement about the earlier conflict in Croatia, when he was deployed in the Vukovar area in 1991.

Marcus said crimes committed in Vukovar, including the killings at the Ovcara farm in November 1991, were part of a plan to eliminate non-Serbs from “a large portion of Croatia”.

“This plan was committed with the assistance and under orders of the Serbian State Security Service” – and of the accused, she said.

The witness denied this was true, insisting “there never was such a plan”.

"In addition, the JNA wasn't deployed to Croatia as if it were a foreign country; they were acting to protect the constitutional order of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and the Vukovar area was part of that country", the witness said.

Karan repeated that he had no knowledge about the crimes committed in Vukovar, after the prosecutor suggested that his role meant he should have known about them.

The prosecutor also addressed Karan’s testimony about the Pauk operation, and showed him witness entries from an operational diary that mention Simatovic's name at various points.

“As far as I know – and as I said, I saw him with headphones – so he was on the ground to conduct electronic reconnaissance, that's all,” Karan said.

Marcus pointed out that diary entries indicated that Simatovic’s role was “determining military targets and planning military activity” – much more than “merely” electronic reconnaissance, she added.

“Well, I don't understand – to conduct both reconnaissance and to plan and command the operation, Simatovic would definitely have to be a superman. It would be too much work for just one person,” Karan said.

Stanisic and Simatovic were arrested by the authorities in Serbia on June 13, 2003.

The trial continues next week.

Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sarajevo.

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