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War Crimes Trial of Former Bosnian-Serb Commanders Begins - 2003-05-14

Three former commanders in the Bosnian-Serb army are on trial in The Hague for their roles in the killings of thousands of Muslims at Srebrenica in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The killings, which took place in 1995, are considered Europe's worst mass execution since World War II.

Prosecutor Peter McCloskey called what happened at Srebrenica eight years ago a "Bosnian genocide". In his opening remarks, Mr. McCloskey said that while for many Serbs Srebrenica is still a myth, for the three accused, Vidoje Blagojevic, Dragan Obrenovic and Dragan Jokic, it is their legacy.

"These accused and their troops were absolutely critical to the success of the murder operation, and none of them had the strength of character or courage necessary to say no and walk away," he said. "But unlike July 1995, today in this Tribunal, there are consequences for this conduct."

Both Mr. Blagojevic and Mr. Obrenovic are charged with genocide for commanding the two brigades directly involved in the takeover of Srebrenica and for the murders that followed. Mr. Jokic is charged with crimes against humanity, including extermination, for his role in what prosecutors call a Joint Criminal Enterprise.

Prosecutors say its purpose was to separate the women and children and send them towards Muslim-held territory, while detaining all able-bodied Muslim men between the ages of 16 and 60, before killing them.

Mr. McCloskey described in detail the last hours of the men before, "they were slaughtered like animals."

He said the men were held, virtually on top of each other, in various detention sites, given no food and little water during brutally hot July days. Mr. McCloskey says the men were held for only one reason.

"It was clear that nobody intended to do anything with these people but murder them. And Momir Nikolic confirmed that," he said.

Momir Nikolic, the man prosecutor McCloskey refers to, is not on trial, but his absence from court is as significant as the trial itself.

As a captain serving under Mr. Blagojevic, Mr. Nikolic was also charged with genocide. But in a surprise move, he pleaded guilty last week to one count of persecution and agreed to testify against his former colleagues.

In what some say is the most significant development in the Srebrenica cases to date, Mr. Nikolic became the first Bosnian-Serb officer to admit that what happened at Srebrenica was planned.

The killing operations, he told prosecutors, were openly discussed at a meeting, and he told Mr. Blagojevic about it. He also confirmed that he coordinated and supervised the separation of families and the detention of the men, that he helped locate places to keep them, and that he was in charge of reburying their bodies after they were exhumed from their original graves in an effort to hide the evidence, what prosecutor McCloskey calls body thievery.

He also confirms the numbers, more than 7,000 killed, that many Bosnian Serbs dispute, and he says the chain of command appeared to be working. His testimony in court will be crucial, especially since the other accused will argue that they were unaware of what was happening.

During the next few months, prosecutors will use intercepts, army documents, and recently obtained video footage of a massacre to prove that the three defendants are guilty of committing what one trial chamber as already ruled was genocide.