10 Croats Surrender to War Crimes Tribunal
By Lee Hockstader
Ten Bosnian Croats indicted on war crimes charges surrendered today to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia after receiving assurances they will get speedy trials.
The surrender, in Split on Croatia's Adriatic coast, resulted from extensive negotiations between U.S. officials and top Croatian leaders, including President Franjo Tudjman -- the chief political patron of the Bosnian Croats. It marked the most significant coup to date for the U.N. war crimes tribunal, which operates in The Hague.
The 10 suspects have been indicted on charges of directing and carrying out a systematic murder campaign against Muslim civilians in several central Bosnian villages in early 1993.
In the bloodiest such incident, Bosnian Croat militiamen killed at least 103 Muslim civilians, including 33 women and children, in a house-to-house sweep around the village of Ahmici, destroying 176 houses and two mosques, according to the indictment. Some civilians are believed to have been burned alive in their homes; none of the village's 356 Muslims remained there after the attack.
Western officials hailed today's surrender as a major step toward lasting peace in Bosnia. They have been frustrated by the glacial pace at which war crimes suspects from the war in Bosnia have been brought to justice in The Hague in the two years since the Dayton peace accord ended the fighting in the 3 1/2-year communal conflict.
"Today's very positive development signals a new determination by the Croatian government and Bosnian Croat leaders . . . to fulfill their responsibilities" under the 1995 U.S.-mediated peace agreement, said Robert Gelbard, President Clinton's special envoy for the Balkans, who helped negotiate the surrender.
Officials have long hoped that the apprehension of war crimes suspects would electrify the peace process here by dealing a setback to intransigent hard-liners, encouraging refugees to return to some areas and giving victims of forced population transfers and other crimes a sense that justice and rule of law apply in Bosnia.
But the surrender raised a number of troubling questions, including how prosecutors in The Hague, who are handicapped by a serious shortage of resources, plan to bring six of the suspects to trial within five months, as they suggested they will.
Indeed, there was speculation today that the 10 suspects gave themselves up because their lawyers doubted the court would have the time, evidence, money and personnel to mount an effective prosecution.
In a statement, the court acknowledged resource problems and suggested it expects the United States, having promised to add muscle to the tribunal and accelerate its trial schedule, will come up with the necessary extra cash.
The surrender also was a reminder that 54 of 74 indicted men remain at large, including the most notorious among them, the Bosnian Serbs' wartime leader, Radovan Karadzic, and their top military commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic. All but three of those remaining at liberty are Serbs.
Nineteen war crimes suspects are now in The Hague -- two already convicted, five on trial and 12, including those who surrendered today, awaiting trial. One Serb suspect was shot to death in July when he resisted an attempt by British troops to arrest him.
The 10 indictees surrendered today to a tribunal representative in Split and boarded a Dutch C-130 Hercules military aircraft for the flight to The Hague.
The group included Bosnian Croat political leader Dario Kordic, 37, one of Bosnia's most notorious war crimes suspects. Together with Bosnian Croat Gen. Tihomir Blaskic, he was charged in 1995 with leading a bloody drive against Muslims in the Lasva Valley area of central Bosnia in 1993. Blaskic surrendered in April 1996 and is on trial in The Hague on charges that include crimes against humanity.
Kordic and others in the group arrived in Split with friends and supporters, including Croatian officials. Speaking to reporters before his departure, Kordic said the group was leaving "with a clear conscience before God and the Croatian people in order to prove its innocence." He added: "We shall endure all this as we have endured everything so far and return with our heads up high."
Western officials said they expect the surrender of the 10 will increase pressure on the Bosnian Serb suspects to give themselves up as well.
Yet while the United States was able to withhold loans and threaten Croatia with diplomatic isolation if it did not act to force the suspects to surrender, the Serbs remain a more complicated case. If the West intensifies pressure on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, the chief Serbian power broker, it could leave him more vulnerable to a tough new challenge from radical Serbian nationalists in Belgrade who vehemently oppose U.S. peace efforts in Bosnia.
The head of the Serbian Radical Party, Vojislav Seselj, a virulent ultranationalist who favors Serbian annexation of parts of Bosnia and Croatia, nearly won the presidential election Sunday in Serbia, the largest of Yugoslavia's two republics. He failed only because voter turnout was lower than 50 percent; new elections are to be held within two months.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company