Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

US Behind Sacking Of Top Bosnian Croats

Former American ambassador testifies on the United States’ role in reining in Croat paramilitaries in war-torn Bosnia.
By Caroline Tosh
A former United States ambassador to Croatia revealed this week that it was American pressure that led to the removal of two senior Bosnian Croats during the 1992-94 Muslim-Croat conflict that was part of the wider Bosnian war.

Speaking at the war crimes trial of six Bosnian Croat officials, former ambassador Peter Galbraith testified that his government pressured the authorities in Croatia to secure the dismissal of Slobodan Praljak, the military commander of Bosnian Croat forces, HVO, and Mate Boban, the then president of the wartime entity of Herceg-Bosna.

The six accused – Jadranko Prlic, Bruno Stojic, Slobodan Praljak, Milivoj Petkovic, Valentin Coric and Berislav Pusic – were senior political and military figures in Herceg-Bosna. They are charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the persecution, imprisonment and expulsion of Muslims in Bosnia and Hercegovina during the bitter Croatian-Muslim conflict which ended 12 years ago.

They are also accused of being part of a “joint criminal enterprise to politically and militarily subjugate, permanently remove and ethnically cleanse Bosnian Muslims and other non-Croats” from parts of Bosnia that was claimed as part of Herceg-Bosna, and “to join these areas as part of a Greater Croatia”.

The indictments says that others involved in this joint criminal enterprise included the former president of Croatia Franjo Tudman, former Croatian defence minister Gojko Susak, and Mate Boban, who was president of Herceg-Bosna. All three are now deceased.

This week, Galbraith testified that soon after taking up the role of ambassador in Zagreb in June 1993, he became aware of the reports of atrocities by HVO forces against Muslims in Bosnia, and began to exert pressure on Tudjman, Susak and Croatian foreign minister Mate Granic to take action against the HVO.

The former diplomat, who previously testified at the trials of the late Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and Milan Martic, a Serb leader in Croatia, explained that he and the US government “came to the conclusion that we were not going to get the results we wanted as long as Praljak remained head of the HVO and Boban remained president of Herceg-Bosna”.

Galbraith explained that by “results”, he meant securing the passage of humanitarian convoys into Bosnia, the closure of HVO prison camps, and an end to the shelling of east Mostar and to the entire Croat-Muslim conflict.

In meetings with Tudjman, Susak and Granic, Galbraith recalled how he “tried to secure removal” of Boban and Praljak from their positions, while making clear the US government’s “scepticism that there would be any progress while they were in office”.

These discussions soon bore fruit, he said, when “the government of Croatia secured their dismissals”. Praljak was replaced in November 1993 and Boban stepped down in February 1994.

Galbraith went on to explain that in December 1993, he was asked by Granic whether Boban could be issued a visa for “an extended vacation in the US”.

A visa proved impossible to arrange, because Boban had been entered into the US border control system as a war crimes suspect. Instead, the ambassador secured him an Australian visa.

“I remember saying that I hoped it was a one-way ticket,” he said.

When pressed by one of the judges to say exactly who arranged the dismissal of Boban, Galbraith confirmed that he was “removed by the order or decision of Franjo Tudjman, the president of Croatia”.

Galbraith testified that after Boban was forced out, American pressure on the Zagreb authorities resulted in a “house-cleaning” exercise which saw all HVO commanders and 70 per cent of the government being replaced.

This, he said, “created the environment” in which Croatia accepted the peace proposals which led to the Washington agreement – a peace deal negotiated in March 1994 between the Bosnian government and the Bosnian Croats that created the Federation of Bosnia Hercegovina.

Earlier in his testimony, Galbraith claimed that during the conflict, Tudjman was just as much the president of the Herceg-Bosna entity as he was of the Republic of Croatia, and had ultimate control of both the HVO and Croatia’s regular army.

“I think every diplomat, except the most oblivious, clearly understood that Tudjman and Susak controlled the Bosnian Croat entity and the HVO,” he said.

In 1993, the first year of his tenure as ambassador, Galbraith said he “tried to influence Tudjman” and often raised concerns with him and Susak about what was happening in Croatia. His concerns regarded the HVO and their blocking of humanitarian aid convoys in Bosnia, the imprisonment of Muslims in detention camps where rapes and forced labour took place, and shelling of east Mostar.

When asked what Tudjman’s reactions were when he brought up the subject of atrocities, Galbraith said the president would sometimes argue that “terrible things are taking place, but the other side is doing it too”, or he would say he would try to do something about it, claiming the HVO leadership “was out of control”.

The witness gave a fascinating insight into the mind of Tudjman and his obsession with creating what Galbraith termed “a great greater Croatia” by carving up and appending parts of neighbouring Bosnia.

Tudjman “believed BiH [Bosnia and Hercegovina] could not or should not continue as a sovereign independent state and that a substantial part of Bosnian territory should become territory of Croatia”, Galbraith said.

The Croatian leader never gave up on this obsession, he said, and kept trying to convert him to his way of thinking, despite being aware of the US position that everyone must accept “the borders of the [former Yugoslav] states as they had emerged in 1991”, the year the country imploded.

First to cross-examine Galbraith on his testimony was Praljak, who is conducting his own defence.

The former theatre director, dubbed “The Beard” due to his thick white facial hair, conducted a dramatic cross-examination. In a mocking tone, he commended Galbraith on his “great eloquence”, before demanding to know what information he had that Praljak, as the former leader of the HVO, was “doing bad things”.

Galbraith simply answered, “You were the commander of the HVO.” He then went on to list a catalogue of abuses for which the HVO was allegedly responsible, including the obstruction of humanitarian convoys into Bosnia, the shelling of the east Mostar, the killing of large numbers of Muslim civilians, and the detention of others in inhumane conditions.

“Rapes took place in HVO camps, and you were in charge of this,” he concluded.

The trial continues.

Caroline Tosh is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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