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Croatian Government Cover-up and Tribunal, Reuters, 1/27/98

Croatian Government Cover-up and Tribunal


By Caroline Smith

ZAGREB, Croatia (Reuters) - Three former soldiers Tuesday accused senior
Croatian government officials of covering up the abduction and execution of
scores of Croat and Serb civilians in the town of Gospic during the
Serb-Croat war in 1991.

The three men, talking to foreign reporters in Zagreb, also accused the
Hague Tribunal for former Yugoslavia of responding to their evidence so
slowly that the authorities had had time to get rid of some of the evidence
in the town.

Milan Levar, 43, former commander of a reconnaissance intelligence unit,
Zdenko Ropac, 45, former secret intelligence service officer, and Zdenko
Bando, 41, former military police commander, worked in Gospic at the
beginning of Croatia's war with its ethnic Serb minority in 1991.

``There were two kinds of killings,'' said Levar. ``One was organized at a
high level of the Croatian authorities in which all structures of the
police, army and politicians took part -- those were the mass killings.

``The other type of killing involved individual murders which happened more
frequently but involved fewer people.''

He said not only Serbs were killed but also Croats who did not agree with
hardline nationalist policies.

Levar said mass graves could still be found around Gospic, although some
sites had been cleared by the military before tribunal investigators could
examine them.

He spoke of seeing ``truckloads of bloated, stinking bodies, mothers and
children blown up by bombs and someone wearing a necklace made of ears.''

``I was present at many abductions and arrests of people. Later, I found out
these people were simply executed or they disappeared,'' said Ropac. ``There
were 127 executed Serbs at the time I left, but we know that the figure grew

Levar said the total was ``several times'' that number. He said Gospic was
now a ``dead place with no future.''

Investigators from The Hague came to Gospic, some 100 miles south of Zagreb,
in August 1997 and heard evidence from the three. Two of them then traveled
to the court in December to hand over video and audio cassettes, photographs
and documents.

Levar said the tribunal had promised to act and had asked them not to go to
the press but the three complained to reporters about the lack of progress
on the case.

They also criticized the tribunal for not offering protection to them and
other potential witnesses in Gospic.

Tribunal spokesman Christian Chartier told Reuters he could not say whether
there was an ongoing investigation into Gospic but said he had had contact
with the three former officers.

``It is difficult for us to arrange protection for witnesses who are not
fully cooperative and who may compromise our work,'' he said.

``I reviewed this very situation this morning and I am confident the
tribunal's representative offered them ways of being protected but these
suggestions were all turned down.

``Cooperation is something mutual. I would think it was a two-way street,''
Chartier said, but added the tribunal was still willing to deal with the

Events in Gospic have made headlines before in opposition and independent
weeklies in Croatia and last September four former Croatian policemen who
allegedly killed Serb civilians were arrested following similar revelations.

It was a sign Croatia, which has been roundly criticized for a lack of
respect for human rights, might be more willing to tackle some of the crimes
its units allegedly committed during the 1991-95 war.

Many people who held positions of power in 1991 still hold high office in
the military and government as well as the ruling right-wing Croatian
Democratic Union party.

Levar said the three former officers were not afraid that their testimony
was being published.

``Whatever we have said, it does not change our attitude toward the Hague
tribunal. We will bear witness and our testimonies can be published,'' he

``The only thing we can do is make an appeal to the West so they can
understand the gravity of what has happened. These events have been covered
up systematically for seven years.

``We thought the Hague tribunal was a means of bringing some people to
justice, or at least we thought it would bring about their replacement in
the high positions they were holding.''