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

US Envoy Blames Croatia for Serb Exodus

Ex-ambassador says Zagreb did nothing to prevent the removal of Serbs from Krajina during 1995 operation.
By Goran Jungvirth
A former United States ambassador in Zagreb, Peter Galbraith, said this week that a 1995 Croatian military operation did not amount to the “ethnic cleansing” of Serbs, but that the destruction of property which followed the attack looked like a concerted attempt to stop the community returning.

In testimony before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, Galbraith, who was US envoy in Croatia from 1993 to 1998, accused the authorities in Zagreb of welcoming the exodus and tolerating serious breaches of human rights.

His testimony forms part of the trial of Croatian generals Ante Gotovina, Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac.

Gotovina, Cermak and Markac are indicted for war crimes against Serbs committed by troops under their command during and after the offensive known as Operation Storm, the objective of which was to retake territory held by rebels since 1991.

“The expulsion of Serbs wasn't a goal, but a consequence,” said Galbraith.

In previous testimony at the trials of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and Croatian Serb rebel leader Milan Martic, Galbraith has said there was no ethnic cleansing during Operation Storm, because most Serbs had fled before the army arrived.

It is estimated that some 200,000 Serbs left the region around the time of the offensive.

“You could not cleanse those who were not there,” Galbraith told the tribunal this week.

According to the indictment, the generals took part in a “joint criminal enterprise” designed to drive the Serb population from Croatia. It says that at least 30 people were killed in Knin and at least 150 across Krajina between August and November 1995.

“Croats did not commit ethnic cleansing in Krajina, although they committed serious breaches of human rights,” said Galbraith.

“The Croatian authorities either ordered or allowed the mass destruction of Serb property in former Krajina to prevent the return of the population. I consider that to have been a thought-through policy,” he said.

In the first days after the Croatian army arrived in Knin, US embassy reports suggested there were widespread killings of Serb civilians and destruction of their houses, the witness said.

In Galbraith’s opinion, this happened “on the orders or with the tacit approval of the Croatian leadership”, with the military either present or participating in these actions.

Responding to a question from Gotovina's defence, Galbraith said major human rights violations – the killing of Serbs who had stayed, and the burning and looting of Serb property – did not occur during the first days of the operation, but afterwards.

“Croatia was an organised country, its army the most disciplined in the former Yugoslavia, and therefore I cannot accept that the illegalities that occurred after [Operation] Storm were spontaneous,” Galbraith told the court.

The Croatian authorities did not make a serious effort to bring the situation under control, he said. In addition, officials also worked to stop Serbs who had fled from coming back, for example issuing orders to confiscate the property of anyone who failed to return within 30 days.

Galbraith said President Franjo Tudjman, Croatia’s first post-independence head of state, and the people around him wanted an “ethnically clean country”.

Tudjman, named as the first accused in the indictment, died in 1999. According to the witness, the late president had the “idea of an ethnically homogenous Croatia” and believed the local Serbs posed a threat to the homogeneity of his country.

Galbraith noted that the US government took an understanding attitude towards Operation Storm at the time, but insisted he would not have asked Washington to give it the green light if he had believed Tudjman intended to remove the Serbs.

The diplomat said he expressly told Tudjman and the Croatian authorities of their obligation to protect Serb civilians and prisoners of war. He also warned them that there must be no repeat of the serious abuses committed during the earlier Medak Pocket operation conducted in 1993.

Galbraith confirmed that the US made representations to Tudjman on the eve of the operation asking him to protect civilians and comply with international humanitarian law, and said this message was then relayed by the then defence minister Gojko Susak to his subordinates.

In contrast to testimony given earlier in the trial by United Nations officials such as Andrew Leslie, who commanded the UN Confidence Restoration Operation, Galbraith said Knin was not randomly targeted during the first days of Operation Storm.

The damage from shelling was not large-scale and the city was left largely undamaged, he said, adding that this information came from embassy staff who – unlike UN personnel – were allowed to move around Knin during the first days of the offensive.

His Gotovina’defence counsel Greg Kehoe rejected the prosecution’s suggestion that Tudjman rejected a final peace offer before launching Operation Storm and imposing a military solution. The defence argues that Zagreb had been open to a peaceful outcome for Serb-held areas prior to the operation.

The trial continues next week.

Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR-trained journalist in Zagreb.

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