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UN Peacekeeper Commander on Mladic's "Absolute Authority"

Bosnian Serb military chief said he "couldn't care less” when told of reports coming out of Srebrenica.
By Velma Šarić
  • Sir Rupert Smith testifying in the Mladic trial. (Photo: ICTY)
    Sir Rupert Smith testifying in the Mladic trial. (Photo: ICTY)

A former British army general testifying against Ratko Mladic told the Hague tribunal this week that the accused appeared to have “absolute personal authority” over the Bosnian Serb army.

General Sir Rupert Smith, who was commander of the United Nations Protection Force, UNPROFOR, in Bosnia in 1995, said that the Bosnian Serb army chief’s orders could not be questioned and were "executed to the word".

Mladic is accused of responsibility for crimes of genocide, persecution, extermination, murder and forcible transfer which "contributed to achieving the objective of the permanent removal of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb-claimed territory".

General Smith became UNPROFOR commander in January 1995 and remained in that post until the Bosnian war ended in November that year.

He has already testified in several trials at the Hague tribunal, most recently in that of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in February 2011.

At Mladic’s trial this week, Smith said he met the accused on a number of occasions in 1995. That meant he saw "the extent to which the [Bosnian Serb] leadership, including Mladic in particular, was aware of what was happening on the ground and what we were seeing on a daily basis".

According to the witness, not all his meetings with Mladic were pleasant. He recalled a meeting which took place "sometime in March 1995", in Vlasenica, eastern Bosnia, when Mladic told him that he would "take all [Smith's] little Englishmen and cut their heads off, one by one, for every threat the UN made [against Bosnian Serb forces]".

The British general told the court that he was "chilled and disgusted" to hear such a statement.

Talking about the Bosnian Serb takeover of Srebrenica in July 1995, which, as the indictment states, resulted in a massacre of over 7,000 Bosniak men and boys, General Smith said that UNPROFOR received regular reports about the scale and extent of what was happening in this eastern Bosnian town.

He said he had a number of telephone calls and personal meetings with the Bosnian Serb army chief around the time that Srebrenica fell, when he "told Mladic, several times, about the reports we were getting from the ground".

According to the witness, Mladic’s response was that he "couldn't care less about what anyone was thinking or saying".

During cross-examination, Mladic’s defence counsel Dragan Ivetic accused the witness of having used his position as UNPROFOR commander to threaten only the Serb side with NATO air strikes. He claimed that the general had come to Bosnia with a clear intent to fight against Serbs".

At one point, Ivetic asked Smith to comment on his own statement from previous testimony at the Hague tribunal that UNPROFOR was "not a peacekeeping force".

To this Smith replied that these were indeed his words and that what he said was true, "for the simple reason that in Bosnia at that time, there was no peace to keep".

"Why did UNPROFOR insist only on carrying out air attacks against the Bosnian Serbs, and not against the other two warring parties?" Ivetic asked the witness.

Smith answered that air strikes against Bosnian Serb army positions were a response to that force’s attacks on UN-declared safe areas including Sarajevo, Srebrenica and Zepa. However, he insisted that it was not him who ordered the attacks.

"It was not upon me to decide that. I only asked that [the air strikes] be carried out because I believed that was the right thing to do, which, eventually, it was," Smith said.

Ivetic put it to the witness that these attacks were the result of a "personal dislike" which Smith harboured for Mladic, pointing out that one of the targets which was bombed was the village where Mladic's parents were buried.

"The targets were chosen based on military criteria", Smith answered, adding that the "only personal thing about those attacks was our attempt to bring Mladic to change his attitude".

"The only thing he should have done was to simply stop shelling the safe areas," he added.

Responding to Ivetic’s remarks that he had admitted to being "under pressure" to carry out attacks against Bosnian Serb forces, Smith replied that this was true.

"I was indeed under pressure… [caused] by the situation, which was very stressful and tense," he said.

At one point, Mladic shouted from the dock that Smith was a "hawk brought in to hunt down the Serbs".

Mladic’s trial continues next week.

Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.

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