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VRS Leadership Structure Explained

Tolimir trial hears testimony clarifying decision-making role of senior Bosnian Serb army officers.
By Velma Šarić
  • Ljubomir Obradovic, prosecution witness in the trial of Zdravko Tolimir. (Photo: ICTY)
    Ljubomir Obradovic, prosecution witness in the trial of Zdravko Tolimir. (Photo: ICTY)

A prosecution witness testified this week at the Hague tribunal about the role of Zdravko Tolimir in the structure and functioning of the Bosnian Serb army, VRS, main staff.

Tolimir, the former assistant commander for intelligence and security of the VRS main staff in 1995, is charged with “intent to destroy a part of the Bosnian Muslim people” for his role in killings in Srebrenica and Žepa in 1995.

In addition to genocide, Tolimir is alleged to have committed the crime of extermination through the large scale systematic murder of Muslim men from Srebrenica which began on July 13, 1995.

According to the indictment of August 28, 2006, Tolimir is accused of crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war for his role in the killing of thousands of Bosnian Muslim men at the Kravica warehouse in eastern Bosnia from July to November 1995.

Former VRS officer Ljubomir Obradovic previously testified before the Hague tribunal in November 2008 in the case of Popovic and others, where he appeared as a defence witness for his former commanding officer, General Radivoje Miletic.

Miletic was one of seven Bosnian Serb officers who were charged with genocide and war crimes in Srebrenica. The trial chamber sentenced him to 19 years in prison, and his case is currently undergoing an appeal.

This week, Obradovic told the chamber that in the summer of 1995 he had been chief of the operations department in the directorate of operative and training affairs of the VRS main staff.

He said that Tolimir was at the time an assistant commander to VRS commander and Hague fugitive Ratko Mladic, and that Tolimir had been in charge of the sector for military intelligence and security affairs in the main staff.

The witness noted that Tolimir, together with five other senior officials of the VRS main staff who were deputy commanders for other sectors, belonged to the innermost circle of Mladic allies.

The indictment says that as assistant commander for intelligence and security of the VRS main staff in 1995, Tolimir reported directly to Mladić.

Explaining the structure of the main staff, Obradovic said that Tolimir’s section for military intelligence and security affairs was comprised of two departments, the commanders of which were directly subordinate to Tolimir.

Asked by prosecutor Peter McCloskey who was in charge of the sector for military intelligence during that time, the witness answered that Colonel Petar Salapura had led that department, whereas the “department of security affairs was headed by Colonel Ljubisa Beara”.

Beara was one of the seven accused in the Popovic and others case, and in 2010 was found guilty of genocide in Srebrenica. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and his case is currently undergoing an appeal.

Continuing his testimony about the structures and functioning of the VRS main staff, the witness confirmed prosecution claims that Tolimir was in charge of the 10th reconnaissance and sabotage detachment, RSD, whose task was to protect Mladic and the main staff.

According to the indictment against Tolimir, it was this detachment that, on July 16, 1995, at a military estate located in Branjevo close to Zvornik in eastern Bosnia, carried out the mass execution of more than 1,000 Bosniak men imprisoned after the fall of Srebrenica.

It was that same unit that is alleged to have executed some 500 Bosniak men from Srebrenica at the Pilica cultural centre in July 1995.

“Could you explain how the [RSD] fit the hierarchy of the main staff?” McCloskey asked.

“As every unit from the First Corps to the Hercegovina Corps, the 10th RSD was also under centralised VRS command, although technically it also followed instructions from the intelligence sector,” the witness answered.

“When you say ‘technically’, could you please specify?” McCloskey asked.

“Its name was ‘reconnaissance and sabotage’, and these reconnaissance affairs were managed by the intelligence sector in the technical sense, just like the liaisons unit was technically related to the main staff, since the staff had a technical liaisons department, and so on,” Obradovic replied.

“So you say the 10th sabotage detachment was under Mladic's command just like the other corps, but that technically it responded to the intelligence department?” the prosecutor continued. “What I don't understand is how can it be under two commands or authorities at the same time.”

“This second authority did not imply the power to give orders,” the witness said, adding that the “intelligence department was there to support the unit operationally, to provide it [with] equipment and training, very specifically, that was the technical part. The military, commanding part, rested just like in the other corps with the respective commander.”

“So would the intelligence department follow what the 10th sabotage detachment did after it would receive an order from Mladic?” the prosecutor asked.

“In any case, they were aware through internal communication and had an influence as to where it would be deployed and how,” the witness replied. “I don't exclude that they even exerted a certain control over that unit for which they were, professionally, responsible.”

“When you say they were professionally responsible, who exactly do you mean?” McCloskey asked. “Who was the person number one in the department responsible for them?”

“It was the chief of the department,” the witness answered, noting once again that at the time in question it had been Salapura.

Salapura appeared as a witness before the Hague tribunal in 2004, testifying in the case of Vidoje Blagojevic, who was found guilty of engaging in genocide and other war crimes and sentenced to 18 years in prison, later revised to 15 years.

“And who was in charge of Salapura and his use and command of the 10th sabotage detachment?” the prosecutor asked.

“His direct commanding officer, General Tolimir,” the witness responded.

The trial continues next week.

Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sarajevo.

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