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Witness Confirms Army Role in Vukovar Killings

Former Yugoslav army officer says Mile Mrksic paid little attention when told of abuse of prisoners who were later massacred.
By Michael Farquhar
A former senior army officer this week told the Hague tribunal that the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, was deeply implicated in the murders of prisoners taken from the Vukovar hospital in November 1991.



Milorad Vojnovic was giving evidence on behalf of the prosecution in war crimes proceedings against three of his former JNA colleagues, Mile Mrksic, Veselin Sljivancanin and Miroslav Radic, who are charged with playing a part in the massacre.



The witness said that during a brief visit to a farm at Ovcara near Vukovar on November 20, 1991, he saw prisoners from the hospital being forced to run the gauntlet, with men lined up on either side kicking and beating them with fists and rifle butts.



While this abuse was taking place, he added, a JNA officer subordinate in rank to two of the accused stood nearby and did nothing to stop it.



The witness said he subsequently visited Mrksic at his command post and informed him of what he had seen. But Mrksic just waved his hand and said, “Don’t talk to me about this.”



At the time, Vojnovic was in command of the JNA’s 80th Motorised Brigade in the area around Vukovar. His unit was subordinated to a command structure referred to as Operational Group South, which he confirmed was run by Mrksic.



Vojnovic said the officer who was present during the abuse at Ovcara was the deputy chief of security within Operational Group South. As such, the witness said, he understood him to have been under the command of the group’s security chief, Sljivancanin.



He also confirmed the presence at Ovcara of Miroljub Vujovic and Stanko Vujanovic, two commanders of the Territorial Defence service who prosecutors say were in charge of men involved in the mistreatment and murders of hospital prisoners.



In the wake of the massacre, during which over 260 prisoners were allegedly taken from Ovcara to a ravine in the direction of Grabovo and executed, Vojnovic said rumours were rife about what had happened. But the witness did not inform Mrksic because since his “most responsible senior officers” were involved in handling the hospital prisoners, he assumed he already knew.



During cross-examination, the defence lawyers representing the three accused sought to paint a very different picture of Vojnovic’s involvement in the affair.



Using his testimony from previous proceedings relating to the Vukovar case, documentary evidence, and statements by other witnesses, they attempted to prove that he was lying in court in order to hide his own responsibility for what happened.



Vojnovic acknowledged that he was the highest-ranking officer at the Ovcara site during the time that he spent there, which he said was about half an hour. And he admitted that he had in theory been responsible for the surrounding area.



But he insisted that his unit was not involved in guarding the prisoners. He added that if officers from his senior command entered the territory assigned to him, there was little he could do about it, and as long as they were present, they had to take responsibility for their own actions.



Objecting to moves to blame him for the murders of prisoners who had been brought into his zone by a third party, Vojnovic compared it to a situation in which a bomb is thrown over a fence into someone’s garden and the owner of the garden is blamed for the subsequent explosion because he didn’t throw it back in time.



Pressing their point, however, the defence presented the witness with an entry in the combat log of his brigade from November 19, which noted that an order had arrived to prepare to guard some 200 people who were expected to surrender soon in the area around the Vukovar hospital.



Vojnovic said it was not his duty to fill in the log and he knew nothing about the matter.



The witness also acknowledged that in previous statements, he had suggested that some of his men were involved in escorting prisoners from the Vukovar hospital to Ovcara. But he said he later realised this was not true.



The defence also sought to use documents and previous testimony to suggest that Vojnovic had called for some of his men to guard the prisoners once they were at Ovcara. He insisted that they were misrepresenting what had happened.



In another angle of attack on Vojnovic’s testimony, Mrksic’s lawyer suggested that his client’s reaction on being informed of events at Ovcara had in fact been intended to signal that the witness should show some initiative and use the resources at his disposal to stop the abuse.



Vojnovic said that was not how he had understood his commander’s response.



Vojnovic was the latest in a string of JNA witnesses to appear for the prosecution in the Vukovar trial.



His testimony was followed by evidence from historian Mark Wheeler, who is currently working as a political advisor for the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia. Wheeler spoke about the broader context within which the Vukovar atrocity took place.



Towards the end of the week, prosecutors reported that they hoped to complete their case by the middle of next month.



Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in London.

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