Srebrenica killings called well-planned operation

Two senior Serb officers offer details at tribunal

October 12, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

THE HAGUE, Netherlands - Eight years after the massacre of more than 7,000 Bosnians, doubts have lingered about the degree to which the killings were coldly planned or were improvised in chaos.

Most of those killed were unarmed prisoners, boys and men, shot in groups, or sometimes one by one.

Among the executioners, only a few foot soldiers have talked about the events that turned Srebrenica - its name means the "place of silver" - into a symbol of a modern European nightmare. No architect of the crime has ever explained in public what was in the killers' minds, or what made them believe that the murderous frenzy was acceptable to their society and to their leaders.

But now, two senior Bosnian Serb officers, both crucial figures involved in organizing the bloodshed at Srebrenica, have spoken out at the war crimes tribunal here, describing the countdown to the massacre and depicting a well-planned and deliberate killing operation. They say it was largely coordinated by the military security and intelligence branch of the Bosnian Serb army and militarized police, forces that were on Serbia's payroll.

The two, an intelligence chief and a brigade commander, recently pleaded guilty to crimes against humanity and have given evidence against two fellow officers. They provided so many names, firsthand accounts, documents and even a military log of the crucial days, that one court official blurted, "They've practically written the judgment."

One of the insiders referred to a directive he received, which said that "the life of the enemy has to be made unbearable." He also said it was his role to coordinate "the separation, detention and killings of the men."

This officer, Momir Nikolic, a former intelligence chief, described with cool precision the steps he took in coordinating the logistics, moving between army and police units, avoiding telephones and radios, as preparations for the mass executions were under way.

The second officer, a brigade commander, Dragan Obrenovic, recounted how in the final hours, prisoners were moved to different detention and killing sites, in a deliberate move to avoid detection by the Red Cross and the United Nations mission, which were active in the area. The insiders' accounts might well become crucial in the separate trial of the former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who faces 66 charges, including genocide.

During lengthy cross-examination, a defense lawyer for Col. Vidoje Blagojevic challenged Nikolic's credibility, reminding him of a lie.

He said that this year, when negotiating a plea agreement with prosecutors, Nikolic confessed to his role in Srebrenica but also claimed a role in another massacre at which he was not present. Before the agreement was completed, he retracted that statement.

Nikolic provided an answer, in a show of emotion that is rather exceptional at a tribunal where perpetrators' toughness and denial are more common.

At the time, he said, he accepted more guilt, fearing that the plea agreement might fall through. During his confessions, he said, he had lived through "a terrible" period he did not want to remember, let alone talk about. "Everything that happened in and around Srebrenica was always present in my mind," he said. "I did not want to go through that process again and face a trial."

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