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Tolimir Claims UN Provoked Serbs at Srebrenica

But Dutch colonel says UN deployment around town was necessary to prevent Bosnian Serbs from entering.
By Velma Šarić

A prosecution witness in the Hague tribunal trial of former Bosnian Serb army official Zdravko Tolimir this week denied the defendant’s allegation that United Nations protection forces deliberately provoked Serb troops in the Srebrenica area.

Tolimir, the former assistant commander for military intelligence and security in the Bosnian Serb Army, VRS, general staff, is charged with eight counts including genocide, conspiring to perpetrate genocide, murder, extermination, expulsion, forced transfer of population and deportation of Bosnian Muslims from Srebrenica and Zepa in eastern Bosnia, in July of 1995.

In July 1995, immediately prior to and during the days in which the Srebrenica genocide was committed, Dutch colonel Robert Franken served as a deputy commander for the UN protection force, UNPROFOR, Dutch battalion.

Tolimir, who is defending himself, initially wanted to know whether the battalion had received orders from Holland. "Were you bound by orders given by the Dutch defence minister?" he asked.

"In the context of the defence of Srebrenica, there were certain limitations set by the minister,” replied Franken. “He didn't order us to defend Srebrenica, but he knew of the situation there. He had no command responsibility whatsoever, because he wasn't on top of UN's command chain. If he wanted something formally, he had to state it to the top of the UN command chain. Not to the Dutch battalion, but to UNPROFOR command."

The witness continued, "I knew he adopted certain guidelines, because the commander came to me and said ‘these are the guidelines from Holland'. I won't repeat in court what I said to him then, it simply wouldn't be appropriate."

Franken then added, "Thanks to an order from Sarajevo which said that the enclave was to be defended, UNPROFOR turned from a protection force into a defence force for the enclave."

"Were you in the situation to defend Srebrenica?” Tolimir asked.

"No, we simply weren't," answered Franken.

"Did you count on airborne support to fulfil that task?" continued Tolimir.

"No, we didn't, not after it happened that we asked for support and were told that the planes weren't ready,” replied Franken. “On the morning of July 11, planes were supposed to come and I was glad, but they ultimately also never came."

Tolimir then reminded the witness that on July 8, the VRS had issued an explicit order prohibiting opening fire against UNPROFOR troops. He asked the witness whether he thought that this was the reason that massive airborne attacks did not take place.

"I don't know why there weren't any attacks from the air,” said Franken. “Our request for support met all conditions set by the UN. The VRS was shooting at UN troops and they didn't respect their order."

The witness confirmed that Dutch peacekeepers did seek NATO support but that the scope and amount which were provided were far from necessary to provide defence for the enclave.

The pattern of distribution of Dutch UN troops around Srebrenica, said Tolimir while questioning the witness, "was deliberately chosen in order to provoke the Bosnian Serb army into attacking UNPROFOR, in order to fulfil one of the pre-conditions for receiving airstrikes from NATO".

He alleged that UNPROFOR had set up "blockade positions" in order to provoke VRS attacks on UNPROFOR.

"These blockade positions were necessary in order to prevent the VRS from entering the town," Franken said in response.

Tolimir then asked Franken to define what the prosecution had referred to as “convoy terror” earlier in the trial.

"As a battalion, we had certain logistical needs,” the witness said. “Yet every time we wanted a logistical convoy to come to us, we faced pressure from the VRS, related to when it would come and what it was carrying. Sometimes convoy transits would be repeatedly denied; sometimes they would be prevented from bringing us exactly what we needed."

He added that this referred to UNPROFOR convoys, but that he was also familiar with challenges faced by UNHCR aid convoys for refugees.

Franken went on to explain the shortage of ammunition faced by the Dutch battalion.

"A lot of the weaponry was damaged by humidity," he said, "so that usable ammunition made up only about 16 per cent of our true ammunition needs. That led to us asking for increased delivery of ammunition and weapons."

Tolimir then asked the witness, "Do you think it would be reasonable to allow an increase in ammunition deliveries, even if it was UNPROFOR in the question, and to let that ammunition be used against you? You did say the VRS was an aggressor, didn't you?"

"UNPROFOR was in the enclave with the consent of both sides,” replied the witness. “I didn't understand why you [the VRS] feared that the weapons may be used against you. You knew our orders and our mandate and you knew that it didn't include opening fire against any of the parties."

The accused then went on to question UNPROFOR's relation to the Bosnian Muslim side in the enclave.

"Were you informed by the command in Sarajevo that there were attacks being carried out from within the enclave towards surrounding villages and civilians?" he asked.

The witness responded that he twice had contact with a VRS representative named Nikolic “and I remember he complained about Muslim actions in the north of the enclave, and that there was a [Bosnian] army ambush, [with] 10-12 soldiers [killed]. We asked him to provide more material, to authorise building additional observation sites, but that request was denied by the VRS".

"Did you ever witness Bosnian Muslims taking away weapons and UNPROFOR equipment?" asked Tolimir.

"Once they did take an observation spot, Calin, and they tried stealing some of the stuff there, but they were prevented from doing so. They only managed to take two tanks of diesel."

The witness added that, until late May, there were skirmishes between the two parties, but there was also an attempt to reach an agreement permitting trade "in everything except weapons" with the enclave.

Tolimir then asked the witness, "How did you react to the increase of activity towards Serb-populated areas?"

"I told you I knew of two cases I already mentioned," the witness said. Asked by Tolimir whether he was familiar with a Bosnian army operation that had seized VRS weapons and taken prisoners, as well as having set fire to houses, the witness answered that he did not know of the incident in question.

"Sixty inhabitants were killed from a demilitarised zone. Is that permissible?" asked Tolimir.

"The killing of civilians is forbidden in all cases, if that figure refers to civilians,” Franken answered. “It is a large figure but you have to see it in context, knowing how large the village was, how they were attacked and how they defended themselves.”

"Did you disarm [Bosnian] army units?" continued Tolimir.

"We were not successful in achieving it,” Franken responded. “Twice or three times we were able to take away weapons fro [Bosnian] army patrol, and take them to the weaponry collection point."

The witness then said that there was a black market in Srebrenica, but that it involved cigarettes and food, "as the things that could be brought in".

Asked by Tolimir, he said he knew nothing of a weapons black market, dismissing Tolimir's claims that "even Muslims admit that there was a black market in weapons in the enclave".

The first indictment against Tolimir was presented on February 25, 2005, and he was arrested on May 31 2007. On December 16, 2009, he
pleaded not guilty to all counts.

Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.

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