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UN Officer Says Bosnian Serbs Were “Subordinate” to Belgrade

Witness said this was clear from Bosnian Serb commander’s conduct during negotiations with Yugoslav army chief.
By Katharina Goetze
A former United Nations officer this week told Momcilo Perisic’s war crimes trial that Bosnian Serb forces who shelled Sarajevo seemed to be “subordinate” to Belgrade in an early phase of the conflict.

John Wilson, a former UN military liaison officer, said the Bosnian Serb military leader from 1992-95, General Ratko Mladic, appeared at one point to be taking orders from Zivota Panic, the defendant’s predecessor as chief of staff in the Belgrade-controlled Yugoslav army, VJ.

Perisic, who commanded the VJ at the time of the siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica genocide in 1995, is accused of aiding and abetting the deliberate killing and wounding of thousands of civilians in sniper attacks, artillery and mortar shelling. He took over the post from Panic in August 1993.

During the war, Wilson, an Australian general, said he took part in high-level negotiations between military and political representatives on both sides involved in the conflict, in particular, talks about the evacuation of a VJ barracks in Sarajevo and the opening of the city’s airport.

He said he met Panic during negotiations for the evacuation of the Sarajevo barracks during 1992.

The Bosnian government wanted to take possession of weapons stored in the barracks, which had previously belonged to the Yugoslav government, while the Bosnian Serbs wanted to be able to evacuate the barracks without handing over the arms.

“Mladic was against [the Bosnian government taking weapons] but he had to give in. From the conduct and the military greetings, it was clear that Mladic was subordinate to Panic. He acted in a subordinate manner to him,” Wilson told the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY.

During cross examination, the defence sought to establish that the Belgrade leadership at the time had no control over Mladic.

Gregory Guy-Smith, the defence counsel for Perisic, asked Wilson to confirm a statement made in a previous trial that Mladic was “out of control, independent and irrational”.

Wilson confirmed that Serbian officials had described Mladic as a “loose cannon” who carried out irresponsible actions, independently.

To give an example, Wilson told the court how Mladic at one point threatened to use intense artillery fire if the West took military action against his forces.

“Mladic said, ‘If you bomb us, we are going to shell Sarajevo.’ His threat was quite credible. He was a man of his word,” said the witness.

Wilson also told the court about fighting in Sarajevo during the first months of the war in spring 1992.

He described how a “gross disparity between both forces” became obvious as fighting went on throughout May and June with a “heavy weight towards the Serbs”. Wilson said that the Bosnian government forces did not have a great number of weapons whereas the Serb troops had a “significant capability”.

He said shelling and sniping during the six weeks of his stay in Sarajevo were “a daily occurrence, intense and directed virtually at the whole of the city”. He said that in his view, the combatants often hit targets of no clear military value and did not take into account the civilians in the city.

He recalled how a mortar fired from Bosnian army positions in the besieged city against the Bosnian Serb forces provoked a significant return of fire back into a civilian area, causing considerable damage.

The defence, in turn, asked the witness whether he had heard of reports by western officials, such as the British head of UN troops in Bosnia Michael Rose, that government forces attacked their own areas to assist the image of Sarajevo as beleaguered by the Bosnian Serbs. Wilson answered that he had not.

The defence lawyer then asked Wilson to confirm that during the talks about the barracks evacuation, the Bosnian government forces had negotiated for more weapons “for the purpose of continuing war efforts”.

Wilson said that in the end, two trailer-loads of small arms were handed over to the Bosnian government forces.

“What the Bosnian presidency wanted was more weapons than they got,” he said.

From December 1992, Wilson acted as a military advisor at the International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia, ICFY, in Geneva. In this capacity, he was closely involved in negotiations conducted by the co-chairmen Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen.

Wilson told the judges that although Lord Owen asked then Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic for support and intervention, Milosevic claimed he had lost control over the Bosnian Serbs.

The defence asked Wilson whether it was correct that Milosevic had indicated he had limited influence over Mladic and other Bosnian Serb leaders.

“He never claimed any authority, it was a question of influence which he may or may not have had,” said Wilson.

The trial continues next week.

Katharina Goetze is an IWPR reporter in London.

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