Croatian cleansing, with US help

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Wed Mar 31 21:38:05 PST 1999

[Should the U.S. add "Military Professional Resources Inc., a private, Virginia-based training company staffed by retired American military officers" to its list of bombing targets too?]

New York TImes - March 21, 1999

War Crimes Panel Finds Croat Troops 'Cleansed' the Serbs


Investigators at the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague have concluded that the Croatian Army carried out summary executions, indiscriminate shelling of civilian populations and ''ethnic cleansing'' during a 1995 assault that was a turning point in the Balkan wars, according to tribunal documents. The investigators have recommended that three Croatian generals be indicted, and an American official said this week that the indictments could come within a few weeks.

The indictments would be the first of Croatian Army officers for actions in the Balkan wars of 1991 to 1995, which first pitted a Croatia seeking independence against rebel Serbs and Serbia proper, and then moved to Bosnia.

Any indictment of Croatian Army generals could prove politically troublesome for the Clinton Administration, which has a delicate relationship with Croatia, an American ally in preserving the peace in Bosnia with a poor human rights record.

The August 1995 Croatian offensive, which drove some 100,000 Serbs from a large swath of Croatia over four days, was carried out with the tacit blessing of the United States by a Croatian Army that had been schooled in part by a group of retired American military officers. Questions still remain about the full extent of United States involvement.

In the course of the three-year investigation into the assault, the United States has failed to provide critical evidence requested by the tribunal, according to tribunal documents and officials, adding to suspicion among some there that Washington is uneasy about the investigation. Two senior Canadian military officers, for example, who were in Croatia during the offensive, testified that the assault, in which some 3,000 shells rained down on the city of Knin over 48 hours, was indiscriminate and targeted civilians.

The Pentagon, however, has argued through American lawyers at the tribunal that the shelling was a legitimate military activity, according to tribunal documents and officials. And American officials have repeatedly maintained that they have provided full cooperation with the tribunal.

A spokesman for the Croatian Ministry of Defense denied that any war crimes or other illegal acts were committed during the offensive, which the Croatians dubbed Operation Storm.

To date, the war crimes tribunal, set up by the United Nations in 1993, has indicted 83 people, most of them Serbs. Its chief prosecutor, Louise Arbour, will ultimately decide whether the indictments should be issued.

The investigators have also recently begun looking into whether the Croatian President, Franjo Tudjman, should be held responsible under international law for his role in the assault, tribunal and American officials said.

At the same time, the investigators have stepped up an inquiry focusing on Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav leader, who is widely seen as the architect of the Balkan wars. American officials and tribunal staff said that a special team to investigate Mr. Milosevic was set up at the tribunal in October. That the tribunal only recently began looking closely at Mr. Milosevic contradicts the widespread speculation that he has already been secretly indicted.

Tribunal officials rejected reports that the tribunal had refrained from indicting Mr. Milosevic because of pressure from the United States, which sees the Yugoslav leader as a guarantor of the Dayton accords.

To assist the tribunal, the Clinton Administration has set up a task force to cull through reams of photos, telephone intercepts and other material held by various Government agencies, including the C.I.A. and the Pentagon, American officials said this week.

''There was never any political pressure'' against indicting Mr. Milosevic, said William Stuebner, an American who served as an adviser to the tribunal's chief prosecutor from 1994 to 1997.

Mr. Stuebner would not talk about any investigation, and tribunal officials who would spoke on condition of anonymity. An American lawyer who has been at the tribunal said that talking about the investigations was like revealing grand jury deliberations and that anyone who did so would be dismissed.

The tribunal has begun an internal investigation to determine who provided The New York Times with a copy of the report on Operation Storm, two former tribunal officials said this week.

Operation Storm was a stunning military assault. In just four days, the Croatian Army regained territory that had been held by rebel Serbs for four years. The Croatian Army then linked up with Bosnian Croat forces and began to roll over Serbian units in neighboring Bosnia. Those defeats, along with the NATO bombing, helped bring the Serbs to the negotiating table in Dayton.

But there was a darker side to Operation Storm, one largely overlooked in the West, which had little for the Serbs. The Croatian Army drove more than 100,000 Serbs from their ancestral homelands, forcing them to flee on carts and in small cars jammed with their possessions. In terms of sheer numbers, it was the largest single ''ethnic cleansing'' of the war, though it was not as brutal as the worst of Serb treatment of Bosnian Muslims during the war.

A section of the tribunal's 150-page report is headed: ''The Indictment. Operation Storm, A Prima Facie Case.' ' ''During the course of the military offensive, the Croatian armed forces and special police committed numerous violations of international humanitarian law, including but not limited to, shelling of Knin and other cities,'' the report says. ''During, and in the 100 days following the military offensive, at least 150 Serb civilians were summarily executed, and many hundreds disappeared.'' The crimes also included looting and burning, the report says.

''In a widespread and systematic manner, Croatian troops committed murder and other inhumane acts upon and against Croatian Serbs,'' the investigators say at another point in the report.

The report says investigators gathered ''sufficient material to establish that the three generals who commanded the military operation'' -- Mirko Norac, Ante Gotovina, and the Military Governor of the Knin region, Ivan Cermak -- could be held accountable under international law. Those men, the report charges, were responsible for driving the Serbs out of the area, a process that became known as ''ethnic cleansing'' as leaders of different ethnic groups in the countries that were previously part of Yugoslavia sought to create ethnically pure territories.

The most contentious recommendation of the investigators related to the shelling of Knin.

Two senior Canadian military officers, Gen. Alain Forand and Col. Andrew Leslie, who were with the United Nations peacekeeping forces in Knin at the time, were unequivocal in their testimony to the tribunal that the shelling had been indiscriminate and did not serve a legitimate military function. ''Why they shelled Knin is still hard to believe,'' General Forand told the investigators. ''There is no doubt in my mind that the Croats knew they were shelling civilian targets.''

Of the 3,000 shells fired into Knin, fewer than 250 hit military targets, Colonel Leslie testified.

''That is either bloody poor shooting,'' Colonel Leslie said, according to the tribunal report, ''or one must logically assume that the fire was deliberately directed against civilian buildings.''

Last August, during a meeting to review the investigators' work and recommendations, a senior legal officer at the tribunal, William Fenrick, described the Canadian officers as ''about as good as we will ever get as far as eyewitnesses to a shelling,'' according to the tribunal report.

But the report goes on to quote an American lawyer at the tribunal, Clint Williamson, as seeking to discredit the Canadian officers' testimony. They were ''not capable of detached analysis,'' he said, according to the investigation report.

Mr. Williamson, who described the shelling of Knin as a ''minor incident,'' said that the Pentagon had told him that Knin was a legitimate military target. Even so, Mr. Fenrick is then quoted as telling the August meeting that he was inclined to include the Knin shelling in an indictment.

Then the review panel broke for lunch. When they returned, Mr. Fenrick had changed his mind. ''I am switching from the Canadian general who watched, to the American general who probably planned the operation,'' he said, according to the report. The review concluded by voting not to include the shelling of Knin in any indictment, a conclusion that stunned and angered many at the tribunal. On the other charges, which were less contentious, the review panel recommended further investigation. In January, a tribunal team went back to Croatia.

The identity of the ''American general'' referred to by Mr. Fenrick is not known. The tribunal would not allow Mr. Williamson or Mr. Fenrick to be interviewed. But Ms. Arbour, the tribunal's chief prosecutor, suggested in a telephone interview this week that Mr. Fenrick's comment had been ''a joking observation.''

Ms. Arbour had not been present during the meeting, and that is not how it was viewed by some who were there.

Several people who were at the meeting assumed that Mr. Fenrick was referring to one of the retired American generals who worked for Military Professional Resources Inc., a private, Virginia-based training company staffed by retired American military officers whose presence in Croatia was no secret, even though exactly what it was doing remains a matter of intense intrigue.

Noting that it has been widely speculated among European military analysts and diplomats that the Croats had outside help in planning their 1995 offensive, the company has insisted that its role in Croatia was limited to classroom instruction on military-civil relations.

The vote against including the shelling of Knin in any eventual indictment has stoked the belief among many at the tribunal that the United States was trying to manipulate the judicial body. Ms. Arbour and American officials strenuously deny this.

Ms. Arbour said she would welcome the Pentagon's views on a military matter if it would help the tribunal prepare a case before going into court.

But there is evidence that the United States has not been as helpful as it might be with the Operation Storm investigation.

In May 1996, for example, the investigators asked the United States for eight satellite photos taken of specific grids in the Krajina region of Croatia, where the operation took place, on specific days during Operation Storm. The grids related to the shelling of Knin, the location of Serb troops -- which might help determine whether it was a legitimate military target -- as well as the burning and looting of villages and possible bombing of refugee columns by the Croatian air force.

The team got no response, tribunal officials said. Ms. Arbour said that she could not comment on specific requests to Governments. She also declined to say anything about the status of the investigation.


New York Times - March 3, 1999

Croatia Branded as Another Balkans Pariah


Serbia and the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, are generally considered the pariahs in the Balkans, but according to an international report the verdict on Croatia and its President, Franjo Tudjman, is equally harsh.

''There has been no progress in improving respect for human rights, the rights of minorities and the rule of law'' in Croatia, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in the recent report, which has not been made public.

Beyond that summary, the report, which is astonishing for its lack of diplomatic circumlocution, is filled with damning details -- about repression of the media by the Croatian Government, about its lack of cooperation with the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague and, above all, about the Government's harsh treatment of ethnic Serbs.

Only a small percentage of the approximately 300,000 ethnic Serbs forced to flee their homes here during the fighting between Serbs and Croats have been allowed to return. Most fled when the Croatian Army carried out its own ''ethnic cleansing'' during military operations against Serbian-controlled areas in August 1995.

''It is harsh, but it is not an exaggeration,'' Andreas Stadler, the deputy Austrian Ambassador here, said about the report, which was delivered in late January to the 54 member countries of the organization. The organization, which includes the United States, is charged with overseeing the development of democracy in former Communist countries.

Mr. Tudjman has been elected twice, most recently in 1997, but the State Department in a human rights report made public last week described Croatia as ''nominally democratic,'' but ''in reality authoritarian.''

Still, Mr. Stadler and other Western diplomats said, the European Union and the United States, which is the most powerful outside influence here, must temper their criticism of Mr. Tudjman, in part for strategic reasons: his cooperation is vital to the NATO-led peacekeeping operations in neighboring Bosnia. Today, for example, Apache helicopters for use in Bosnia are being unloaded from an American ship and assembled on the Croatian island of Krk.

There are also concerns that criticizing the country too harshly will give ammunition to the hard-liners in the ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Union, who are in a fight with moderates over who will succeed Mr. Tudjman, 76, as party leader. He has incurable stomach cancer, and his condition has worsened in the last two weeks, diplomats here said.

The delicate diplomatic quandary is reflected in the visit here by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright last August. In her meetings with President Tudjman, Ms. Albright delivered a tough message about the need for Croatia to become more democratic, to comply with the Dayton accords, which ended the fighting in Bosnia, and to allow for the return of the Serbian refugees.

But after returning to Washington, she sent Mr. Tudjman a letter, which so pleased the Croatian leader that it was promptly leaked. A newspaper in the coastal town of Split described it as having the ''taste of apology.' ' Mrs. Albright wrote that while she was aware that her visit had been difficult, ''I want to see you as a part of Europe where you belong.'' Becoming part of Europe is a primary goal for Mr. Tudjman, who bristles when his country is referred to as Balkan, but one that will not become a reality unless Croatia becomes far more democratic, European diplomats have told him repeatedly.

The report did not address the economic situation of the country, but that too is, in a word, miserable. While a few at the top, the political allies of Mr. Tudjman and the ruling party, have acquired fabulous wealth, which they flaunt with flashy cars and expensive clothes, on display in coffeehouses and bars, the middle class is quickly being squeezed into poverty.

The report says that under pressure from the United States and the European Union, the Croatian Government has made commitments to freedom of the press. But it says Croatian Television, the main source of news for up to 90 percent of Croatians, ''remains subject to political control by the ruling party.''

Croatian Television programs are marked by ''hate speech,'' the report says, and news about the political opposition, Bosnia and the international tribunal is ''misleadingly presented, distorted by selection and by prejudicial terminology or comment.''

The Croatian Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the report.

On the international war crimes tribunal, the report says that the Croatian Government has embarked on a campaign to ''encourage distrust and hostility'' toward it among the Croatian populace.

Mr. Tudjman, who diplomats say is convinced he will be indicted by the tribunal, has declared that the tribunal has no jurisdiction over anything that happened when the army regained control, in 1995, of territories in the hands of Serbian separatists.

The Government has given repeated assurances that the Serbian refugees will be allowed to return. But it is unlikely that they will.

''We have resolved the Serbian question,'' Mr. Tudjman declared in a speech to his generals in December, referring to the 1995 military actions. Then he added, ''There will never be 12 percent of Serbs'' in Croatia, as there were before the war.

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