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Witness Denies Seeing Serbian Red Berets in Eastern Bosnia

Former police officer was in charge of crucial crossing-point between Serbia and Bosnia.
By Velma Šarić

The trial of two former Serbian intelligence officials continued this week with the appearance of a defence witness for Franko Simatovic who testified about Bosnian army attacks on Serb civilians in eastern Bosnia in 1993.

Jovica Stanisic and Simatovic, former Serbian State Security, DB, officers, have been charged with participating in a joint criminal enterprise with the objective of forcibly and permanently removing non-Serbs from large areas of Croatia and Bosnia through persecution, murder and deportation of the Croat, Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat populations.

Stanisic served as DB head from 1991 to 1998, while Simatovic worked under Stanisic’s command as head of a special forces unit known as JSO or the Red Berets.

According to the indictment, Stanisic and Simatovic established, organised and financed training centres for Serb forces, with the purpose of pursuing military action in Croatia and Bosnia.

The indictment states that Stanisic and Simatovic sent these forces to Croatia and Bosnia, where they committed crimes and took control of towns and villages in Serb-held areas in Croatia and Bosnia, forcing non-Serbs to leave these territories.

During the 1992-95 war, witness Risto Selovac, who testified with image distortion as a protective measure, worked for the Serbian Ministry of Interior, MUP.

He commanded the border crossing between Serbia and Bosnia on a bridge near Bajina Basta, and this week he told the judges that he saw the defendant Simatovic at the border crossing several times.

“That was until March or the end of the first half of 1993,” he said.

The witness denied the prosecution’s allegations that Simatovic and his Red Berets unit were stationed in the village of Skelani in eastern Bosnia, which is separated from Bajina Basta by the river Drina.

He also denied the prosecution’s claims that for a time, Simatovic’s unit secured the Bajina Basta border crossing between Bosnia and Serbia.

According to the indictment, the Red Berets were an elite unit in the DB founded by Simatovic and Stanisic in 1991 in order to carry out secret operations outside Serbia.

Part of the indictment deals with the DB’s relationship with a number of Serb paramilitary groups. According to the indictment, Stanisic and Simatovic helped establish, arm and finance these groups.

In the rest of his testimony, Selovac spoke of attacks and military offensives carried out in eastern Bosnia in 1993 by the Bosnian government army, ABiH, describing these attacks as “strong and frequent”.

“On January 16, 1993, [the ABiH] attacked Bosnian Serb forces that were stationed in Skelani,” he said. “I know that around 60 members of the VRS [Bosnian Serb army] were killed in that incident. It’s not just soldiers that were killed, I know that the casualties included civilians, even four or five children.”

According to Selovac, later that month the ABiH shelled a large column of Bosnian Serb civilians who were trying to escape from eastern Bosnia and flee to Serbia. During the shelling, some munitions landed inside Serbia in Bajina Basta, he said.

“Because of the frequent and intense attacks by [ABiH], special police units from Serbia were sent to the territory of Bajina Basta,” Selovac added. He explained that they were deployed there to stop the ABiH crossing the border and entering Serbia.

During the cross-examination of the witness, prosecutor Travis Farr presented an excerpt from Bosnian army commander Ratko Mladic’s notebook, dated February 28, 1993, which states that Simatovic attended a meeting at which a military operation called “Udar” (“Strike”) was planned against the ABiH in eastern Bosnia.

Mladic was commander of the Bosnian Serb army from 1992 to 1996 and is currently on trial for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The journal extracts belong to material which the Serbian authorities seized from Mladic’s family members in 2010.

According to the prosecution, 21 extracts from Mladic’s notebooks “point out the existence of a joint criminal enterprise with the aim of establishing ethnically clean areas in parts of Croatia and [Bosnia], and the participation of the accused Stanisic and Simatovic in this”.

The prosecutor presented some VRS documents from 1993, which stated that the Red Berets unit, under Simatovic’s command, was stationed in a school in Skelani from January until May 1993.

The witness said that he “knew nothing about that” and that he had no information whatsoever about the presence of the defendant or the Red Berets in the school.

After the prosecutor presented another VRS report which states that the Red Berets unit “controlled the bridge” – the border crossing in Bajina Basta – the witness again said he knew nothing about this, adding that he was in charge of the border crossing on the Serbian side of the border.

“They may have been on the other side of the bridge, in Repubika Srpska,” he said.

The trial continues next week.

Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.