- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 28, 2002

ZAGREB, Croatia The indictment by the Balkans war-crimes tribunal of a high-ranking Croatian general has enflamed nationalist sentiments, sparking a political crisis in this nation of 4.3 million.
Gen. Ante Gotovina was indicted in June 2001 by the prosecutor's office at the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague on charges that he exercised "command responsibility" over a 1995 military campaign that resulted in the deaths of 150 Serbian civilians.
Secretly supported by the Clinton administration, Croatian forces began a three-day massive military offensive known as "Operation Storm" on Aug. 4, 1995, in which Croatia recovered territories occupied by rebel Serbs following Croatia's successful bid for independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.
"The Gotovina case is the most important issue facing Croatia today," said Josko Celan, a prominent author on Croatian politics and an analyst with the Croatian newspaper Slobodna Dalmacija.
"The case is about protecting our national sovereignty and the dignity of our war for independence. It is about how the world perceives the legitimacy of our drive for independence," Mr. Celan said.
Gen. Gotovina was the military commander of Sector South of the operation that was responsible for the capture of the rebel city stronghold of Knin. He is also accused by the prosecutor's office at The Hague of overseeing the ethnic cleansing of 150,000 Serbs in Croatia who fled from the incoming military assault.
Many in Croatia view the Gotovina indictment as unfairly singling out the Croatian general for an operation that was authorized by the Clinton administration.
The Croatian World Congress recently filed a complaint with The Hague tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, demanding that she open a criminal investigation into former President Clinton and other top officials of his administration for "aiding and abetting" Gen. Gotovina during Operation Storm.
The Croatian World Congress, a nongovernmental organization that advises the United Nations, said it believes neither Gen. Gotovina nor Clinton administration officials are guilty of war crimes.
However, it said that if Mrs. Del Ponte insists on prosecuting Gen. Gotovina, then American officials should be prosecuted in the interests of "evenhanded justice" because they played a pivotal role in aiding the general's campaign in Operation Storm.
But the Croatian World Congress insists that "the most just outcome would be to withdraw the indictment against Gen. Gotovina."
When asked if the prosecutor's office plans to investigate Clinton administration officials, Florence Hartmann, spokeswoman for Mrs. Del Ponte, declined to comment.
Gen. Gotovina, 48, has been in hiding since Croatia's center-left government agreed last year to send him to the tribunal. The decision has sparked a crisis here, where many view the general as a war hero who helped to liberate Croatia's territories from the control of rebel Serbs. There are billboards everywhere that read: "Hero, not criminal."
"He is a war hero who freed us from Serbian occupation. If he is questioned, then our war for independence is being questioned, and ultimately the legitimacy of our independence as a nation is being questioned," Mr. Celan said.
"There will be massive demonstrations if he is handed over to The Hague tribunal. You could expect at least 200,000 demonstrators probably much more. What will happen after that no one knows."
The United States provided military and technical assistance to Operation Storm to deliver a decisive defeat to then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's goal of forging an ethnically pure "Greater Serbia."
The Clinton administration viewed Croatia's military campaign as pivotal to tilting the strategic balance of power in the region against Serbian forces, paving the way for the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war in neighboring Bosnia.
American support for the 1995 military assault ranged from Washington's sharing intelligence information to Croatian forces on the ground through the use of a GNAT-750 drone that pinpointed Serbian troop deployments, to encryption gear provided by the United States to each of Croatia's regular army brigades.
Retired Gen. Markica Rebic, Croatia's chief of military intelligence during Operation Storm, said that the Clinton administration was cooperating closely with the Zagreb government throughout the planning stages and implementation of the military counteroffensive.
In particular, Mr. Rebic, 50, said that the U.S. administration was concerned about the fate of the Muslim pocket of Bihac in the northwest area of neighboring Bosnia, which was coming under attack from rebel Serbian forces based in Bosnia and Croatia during the summer of 1995.
"For the Americans and for us the key was the Bihac enclave. It was pivotal to the Serbs in their objective of forming a Greater Serbian state that would link up all the territories they captured in Bosnia and Croatia," he said in an interview.
Mr. Rebic said that during the planning of Operation Storm he had met with the American military attache to Croatia, Richard Herrick. At the end of July 1995, Mr. Herrick visited Mr. Rebic in his office and gave the administration's green light for the operation.
"They told me that the Clinton administration would support an operation to liberate our territories. The operation needed to be done quickly, effectively and cleanly," Mr. Rebic said. "They feared the international reaction if the operation dragged out. They emphasized that I tell Defense Minister Gojko Susak and President Franjo Tudjman immediately about this and I filed a report immediately."
Mr. Rebic said that throughout the three-day operation he was in constant contact with American military authorities in Croatia, providing them with information on what was occurring on the ground.
"The Americans knew everything that was going on. Our cooperation with the Clinton administration was close and tight," he said.
Mr. Rebic dismisses the charges in The Hague indictment that Gen. Gotovina's forces had engaged in excessive shelling of Knin or that they attacked civilian targets.
"The excessive shelling of Knin was a media fabrication. This is not true. Knin was a legitimate military target. It was the military and police headquarters of the rebel Serbs. There was no shelling of hospitals and schools. There was no atrocities against civilians," he said.
"The killing that did occur was after the operation revenge killings by civilians against civilians."
By the third day of the operation, Gen. Gotovina's 10,000-man army had left Knin and gone into neighboring Bosnia toward the Serbian stronghold of Banja Luka. They were immediately followed by Croatia's civilian police forces who took control of the Knin area.
Mr. Rebic said that in the weeks following the operation there remained a security vacuum in the recovered territories roughly the size of Kosovo until law and order could be established. It was during that period that abuses were committed.
"It is hard to impose governmental authority on such a vast, uncontrolled territory," he said. "Just look at Kosovo. Following NATO's air campaign in 1999, 190,000 Serbs left the area and 900 civilians were killed. So if NATO had a hard time asserting control and law and order over a territory of comparable size, why is Croatia held to a different standard?
"The rebel Serbs in Croatia had ethnically cleansed their territories of over 118,00 Croats during their military campaign in 1991. Many Croats were killed and their homes destroyed. It was a chaotic situation following Operation Storm, and in that vacuum some returning Croats seeking revenge committed crimes. But it was not a deliberate military strategy from the top."
Prominent human rights activists in Croatia agree with that assessment.
Ivan Cicak, the founder and former president of Croatia's Helsinki Committee on Human Rights, investigated the charges of human rights abuses by Croatian forces during Operation Storm and concluded that "95 percent of the war crimes were committed after the operation ended."
Mr. Cicak said that most of the crimes were perpetrated by returning civilians seeking revenge after the operation was over, when the recovered areas fell under the jurisdiction of local security and police forces.
"About 40,000 houses and barns were destroyed three months after Operation Storm, as well as 500 civilians were killed. There was mass looting and property damage," he said, stressing that the evidence collected by Helsinki Watch was based on eye-witness accounts of local Serbs in the area who remained behind following the military operation.
"I have not seen one document showing the guilt of Gotovina during or after the operation."


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