UN Official Casts Doubt on Indiscriminate Shelling Claims

Former special envoy observed following artillery attack that damage to town of Knin was “unexpectedly minor”.

UN Official Casts Doubt on Indiscriminate Shelling Claims

Former special envoy observed following artillery attack that damage to town of Knin was “unexpectedly minor”.

Testifying this week as a defence witness for accused Croatian general Ante Gotovina, Yasushi Akashi, ex-United Nations special envoy for the former Yugoslavia, said it was not clear if the town of Knin had been indiscriminately shelled during a Croatian army offensive in August 1995.



At that time, Akashi was based at the UN headquarters in Zagreb, from where he reported developments in the war and mediated in negotiations between the Croatian government and the rebel Serb leadership.



This week at the Hague tribunal, the defence questioned the witness about reports he received from UN observers in the field which said that Knin had been shelled indiscriminately by Croatian troops during Operation Storm, which began on August 4, 1995.



When the defence presented him an observers’ report which stated that 200 to 300 shells had landed on the town in the first 30 minutes of the attack, the witness said it “shouldn’t be assumed” that the shelling was indiscriminate.



“Two hundred to 300 shells could mean unselective shelling but it could mean that all those shells were dropped on military installations,” he said.



Generals Gotovina, Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac are accused of war crimes committed against Serbs by troops under their command during and after Operation Storm. According to the indictment, Gotovina was overall operational commander of the offensive in the southern portion of the Krajina region, Markac was in charge of special police units, and Cermak commanded the Knin garrison.



The indictment states that the generals took part in a joint criminal enterprise designed to drive the Serb population from Croatia. It is estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 Serbs left the region around the time of the offensive.



Prosecutors allege that Croatian forces shelled civilian areas, and say that at least 30 people were killed in Knin and at least 150 across the entire Krajina region between August and November 1995.



During the trial, some former UN staff members deployed in the area at the time have testified that rather than just aiming at military targets, Croatian troops randomly shelled Knin.



But this week, their former superior Akashi cast doubt on this conclusion.



At several points during his testimony, the witness, who testified via video link from Japan, was unable to answer questions about the events of Operation Storm and its aftermath, saying he couldn’t remember.



Gotovina’s defence lawyer Luka Misetic presented to the court some documents and notes signed by Akashi during that time. He read out a telegram which Akashi sent to the then UN secretary general Kofi Annan after the witness visited Knin on August 7.



Reading this out, Misetic said Akashi had written that his general impression was that Knin “suffered damage from the shelling, but that it is, although visible, unexpectedly minor”. Akashi confirmed to judges that he had written the telegram.



To counter prosecution claims that Knin was indiscriminately shelled, Misetic quoted further from Akashi’s telegram. Akashi had written that he had “damage to the structure of the city itself is much smaller than I expected, lots of houses are completely intact”, Misetic read.



During the trial, prosecutors have also presented UN staff reports which said that Knin’s hospital was targeted by the Croatian army’s shelling, and outlined the damage done to this.



However, this week, Gotovina’s defence presented Akashi with notes the witness made when he visited the hospital in the aftermath of the assault.



In these, Akashi described the hospital as “functional, without major damages”, and noted that it had only been hit by one projectile.



During his testimony, Misetic asked Akashi if he could remember being told about Croatian soldiers committing crimes at that time, and the witness replied that he could not.



Other UN staff have testified for the prosecution that they witnessed Croatian soldiers taking part in arson and looting during the attack.



“I can’t remember anything concrete about what they [my colleagues] told me about Croatian forces’ behaviour,” he said.



Akashi also said he could not remember if he had ever received reports that Croatian troops systematically plundered the city.



He added, however, that he was “very proud” that Croatian soldiers had offered accommodation and shelter in their barracks to Serb civilians. He said that he saw this when he visited refugees who had been placed into Croatian army barracks following Operation Storm.



Misetic also asked Akashi about political negotiations he took part in at that time.



The defence told the court that Milan Martic, who led the Serbs’ armed rebellion in Krajina, had at one point refused a peace agreement which Akashi had tried to reach. The witness confirmed this version of events.



Martic is currently serving a 35-year prison term, after being convicted at the Hague tribunal of war crimes and crimes against humanity.



Akashi described a meeting held between the Croats and Serbs on July 3, 1995, which he confirmed was one of the last attempts to avoid Operation Storm. While the Croats agreed to a solution presented at this meeting by the UN, Martic refused, the witness confirmed.



“We were extremely bitter after that meeting, because it turned out that it was futile,” Akashi said.



The defence has argued throughout the trial that Croatia had wanted to come to a peaceful agreement over the status of Krajina, but that the Serbs had rejected this.



This week, the defence also presented excerpts from a report Akashi wrote to the UN general secretary around the time of the operation which said that the main worry of Serbian civilians then was that they would not be able to leave Croatia.



Akashi said he knew this from his conversations with refugees, when he visited them in the barracks where they were living.



Contrary to the prosecution, which argues that Croatian officials conspired to expel the Serb population of Krajina, the defence states that they left willingly.



To support this argument, Misetic presented documents containing details of certain pacts between the UN and the Croatian government, in which the latter agreed to the former’s demands that the Serbs’ human rights be respected and their free passage out the country be guaranteed.



Misetic said that in Akashi’s report to the then UN general secretary, he described a chat he had had with group of Serbs displaced from their homes.



“The thing that struck me the most during my contact with them was the fact that they all expressed their wish to leave Croatia,” Akashi said in the report, as read out by Misetic.



“Maybe the biggest worry among refugees was – if they will be able to leave Croatia and go to Bosnia or Serbia, when that will be possible, and will the UN assist them,” Akashi wrote in his report, according to Misetic.



When it was its turn to question the witness, Markac’s defence asked him to compare the 1995 destruction of Knin, with that of the Croatian town of Vukovar as well as that of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo. Vukovar was left devastated in 1991, after a three-month siege by Serbian forces, while Sarajevo endured a four-year siege by Bosnian Serb forces from 1991 to 1995.



“The destruction of Vukovar was complete. It can’t compare with what I found in other cities, while the destruction of Sarajevo was more severe than that of Knin,” Akasni said.



When questioned by Cermak’s defence team, Akashi spoke about a meeting he had held with the defendant. He said that Cermak had been cooperative with the UN, had acted effectively, and had appeared to believe that the human rights of local Serbs should be respected.



Akashi was the 25th witness brought by Gotovina’s defence. Next week, Cermak’s defence team will start to present its case.



Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR-trained journalist.
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