Croatian war crimes general could implicate US commanders

A prominent supporter of Ante Gotovina has revealed the Croatian general indicted for war crimes will try to embarrass the US if he is extradited to The Hague for trial.

"If it comes to an arrest, General Gotovina's defence team will call on individuals from the United States to testify," said a friend of the controversial former army commander, Nenad Ivankovic, who is head of the right-wing organisation HONOS, the Association for the Protection of the Values of the Homeland War.

The general's supporters believe the move will reveal the extent of US involvement in Operation Storm, the Croatian army's successful campaign against the Serb-held Krajina region in 1995. Washington has always denied claims that it gave the "green light" for Croatia to overrun the UN-protected area.

Several hundred Serb civilians were murdered, or disappeared, in the aftermath of the operation. Some 200,000 fled to neighbouring Bosnia and Yugoslavia. An orgy of house-burning left much of the area a charred wasteland.

A tribunal indictment made public in July held Gotovina responsible for these crimes. He promptly went underground.

Ivankovic, editor of the daily newspaper Vjesnik during the Tudjman era, claims he was one of the last to see Gotovina and that the general authorised him to speak on his behalf.

Apparently sensing that The Hague's net was closing in last spring, Gotovina took his ally to an old military base near Zadar, in Dalmatia, to tell him about US intelligence ties with Croatia on the eve of Operation Storm.

The base was allegedly used by US operatives to collect military data from unmanned aircraft drones, which was then passed on to the Croats.

"Gotovina told me this was an important base for the US, because it replaced their operations on Brac [an Adriatic island] after the [Split-based] Feral Tribune newspaper discovered it," Ivankovic said.

The author of a bestselling biography about Gotovina, Ivankovic says the general told him the US knew exactly what the Croats were up to. "He (Gotovina) feels betrayed by the silence of the US today and by the people he knew. The CIA saw everything that happened during Operation Storm, and never objected then," said Ivankovic.

He has also produced photographs that suggested the general was working closely with the Americans in the run up to the invasion of Krajina.

One, published in Jutarnji List, shows Gotovina alongside a man identified as Ivan Sarac, a former deputy defence attache at the US embassy. Allegedly taken several days before the military campaign, the pair are shown posing in the Dinaric mountains above the former rebel stronghold of Knin, with a man in an American army uniform.

In other photographic evidence, Gotovina, wearing translation earphones, is seen sitting in front of a computer screen titled "Battle Staff Training Program". Another shot pictures him underneath a sign stating " Welcome to Training Center Fort Irwin".

Gotovina's supporters say two prominent US diplomats, Peter Galbraith and Richard Holbrooke, should be allowed to testify if the general eventually stands trial, as they could prove that he fought a clean war and reveal the extent of American involvement in the conflict. Gotovina enjoyed close contact with Galbraith, the former US ambassador to Zagreb, and believes he could confirm that the general had observed the rules of war during Operation Storm.

Holbrooke, the former US Balkans envoy, recorded in his memoirs that he successfully exerted pressure on Croatian units inside Bosnia to halt their advance on the Serb stronghold of Banja Luka, in 1995. Gotovina's supporters say that this would support their theory that the US played an influential role in the reconquest of Krajina.

The former BBC Balkans correspondent-turned British MP, Martin Bell, has said it is vitally important that witnesses such as Galbraith and Holbrooke are called in the event of Gotovina being tried.

"The general's liberty is at stake so he should be able to call on whoever can aid his defence," said Bell. Meanwhile, in Croatia, there's widespread criticism of the Gotovina indictment across the political spectrum, as Operation Storm is generally viewed here as the victorious finale to a hard-fought independence struggle.

Many reject The Hague's assertions, in the indictment, that Gotovina's forces engaged in ethnic cleansing during the capture of the Krajina region. "Something like this [ethnic cleansing] cannot be true," Prime Minister Ivica Racan told a crisis session of parliament in July.

There's a widespread view that if Gotovina is prosecuted, the American role in the campaign should be investigated. "This is more important than one man's guilt or innocence," said Zvonimir Cicak, founder of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Croatia.

More details of Gotovina's international connections seem certain to emerge. And if and when the general faces the Dutch court, he may not be alone in the dock - American foreign policy in the Balkans could face cross-examination there, too.