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Monday, February 26, 2007

World court finds Serbia innocent of genocide charge

SERBIA did not commit genocide against Bosnia during the 1992-5 war, the United Nation's highest court has ruled in a landmark case - but it said that the country had violated its responsibility to prevent genocide.

Bosnia had asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ), based in The Hague, to rule on whether Serbia had committed genocide through the killing, rapes and ethnic cleansing that overtook Bosnia during the war.

It was the first time a sovereign state had been tried for genocide, outlawed in a UN convention in 1948 after the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews.

A judgment in Bosnia's favour could have allowed the country to seek billions of pounds of compensation from Serbia.

Judge Rosalyn Higgins, the ICJ president, said the court concluded that the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys did constitute genocide, but that other mass killings of Bosnian Muslims did not.

But she said the court ruled that the Serbian state could not be held directly responsible for genocide, so paying reparations to Bosnia would be inappropriate even though Serbia had failed to prevent genocide and punish the perpetrators.

"The court finds by 13 votes to two that Serbia has not committed genocide," she said. "The court finds that Serbia has violated the obligation to prevent genocide ... in respect of the genocide that occurred in Srebrenica."

Some 8,000 Muslims from Srebrenica and surrounding villages in eastern Bosnia were killed in July 1995. The bodies of almost half of them have been found in more than 80 mass graves nearby.

Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb wartime leader and his military commander, Ratko Mladic, both accused of genocide over Srebrenica, are still on the run.

Reacting to the ruling in Belgrade, the Serbian president, Boris Tadic, urged the country's parliament to condemn the massacre. "For all of us, the very difficult part of the verdict is that Serbia did not do all it could to prevent genocide," he told a news conference.

"Thank God," said Mirko Kocic, a 25-year-old economy student and Belgrade resident. "For once we are cleared of something."

Tomislav Nikolic, an ultra-nationalist Serbian leader, dismissed the World Court proceedings as "part of a conspiracy" to declare the Serbs a "genocidal nation."

In Sarajevo, 160 miles to the south-west, the Bosnian presidency's Muslim member, Haris Silajzic, told Bosnian television: "I am sorry that Serbia and Montenegro were not convicted of genocide and that they were not convicted of conspiracy in genocide."

In front of Serbia's embassy to Bosnia, set on the banks of Sarajevo's Miljacka river, protesters have planted a series of black coffin-shaped headstones in the riverbank, each marked with the name of a Bosnian town.

"Srebrenica," "Foca," "Zepa," read three of them, some of the towns were Serb atrocities were at their worst.

"I am speechless," said Fadila Efendic, whose son and husband were killed in Srebrenica. "We know that Serbia was directly involved. We saw Serbian troops shell us ... and kill our sons and husbands, we saw them commit genocide here."

Sehida Rahmanovic, another massacre survivor, added that "Bosnian Serbs could not have committed genocide without the help in arms, money, troops and everything from Serbia."

Mr Silajdzic's Bosnian-Croat colleague Zeljko Komsic said he was "disappointed" the ruling did not class as genocide other crimes in the war in which at least 170,000 people died, three-quarters of them Muslims and Croats.

"We who were in Bosnia know what happened here right from the beginning of the war and I know what I will teach my kids," Mr Komsic said.

Fatija Suljic, 60, who lost her husband and three sons in Srebrenica, said: "This makes me cry. This is no verdict, no solution. This is a disaster for our people."

Serbia had said a ruling against it would be an unjust and lasting stigma on the state, which overthrew its wartime leader Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

Milosevic died last year, only months before a verdict in his trial on 66 counts of genocide and war crimes was due.

The UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague has already found individuals guilty of genocide at Srebrenica. Bosnia used evidence from trials there for its case against Serbia.

It is almost 14 years since Bosnia first sued the rump Yugoslav state from which it seceded in 1992, but the case has been repeatedly held up by arguments over jurisdiction.

In 1992, backed by the Yugoslav army, the Serbs captured two-thirds of Bosnia and besieged Sarajevo. Tens of thousands of non-Serbs were killed and hundreds of thousands forced from their homes.

In Brussels, Friso Roscam Abbing, a spokesman for the European Commission, urged both sides to respect the judgment "to ensure justice and enable reconciliation to start".

Nenad Canak, of Serbia's new Social Democrat-Liberal Democratic coalition, said the ruling left him "speechless".

"The only thing I can say is to remind you of the words of Primo Levi written on a wall in Dachau. "The man who denies Auschwitz is the same one who is ready to repeat it."

Meanwhile, in the breakaway Serbian province of Kosovo, teetering on the edge of fresh ethnic violence, the former prime minister headed to the UN court in The Hague on Monday to face a war crimes charges in a trial due to start next week.

Ramush Haradinaj, the Kosovo Albanian leader of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, will appear before the UN war crimes tribunal on 5 March on charges of involvement in a criminal plot to murder, rape and torture Serbs and gypsies in the Albanian-dominated province.

Haradinaj, accompanied by his wife, Anita, was cheered by hundreds of supporters as he arrived at the province's main Slatina airport.

Haradinaj was indicted in 2005 and surrendered to the UN court. The highest-ranking Kosovo Albanian to be indicted by the court, he was allowed to return to Kosovo pending the start of the trial and was also permitted to take up his role of president of his political party, which is part of the province's governing coalition.

Seven international vehicles belonging to the OSCE, or Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, were damaged by an explosion in the town of Peja in western Kosovo, hours before Haradinaj's departure.

Another explosive device was found nearby, said a Kosovo police service spokesman.

• THE powerful post of Bosnia's peace overseer is likely to be extended for a year from July because of concerns about the political stability of the tiny Balkan state.

Nevertheless, European Union officials said the bloc would approve plans today to more than halve its 6,000-strong peace force in Bosnia by June, saying they had few concerns about security.

An extension of the mandate of the Office of the High Representative is expected to be agreed today by Bosnia's Peace Implementation Council, said the spokesman for Christian Schwarz-Schilling, who is due to step down on 30 June.

"There appears to be a consensus that the mandate will be extended for a year," Chris Bennett said.

The post, set up to oversee implementation of the Dayton peace agreement ending the 1992-95 war and giving the holder powers to sack officials and impose laws, had been due for abolition after Mr Schwarz-Schilling stands down.

However, he said last month he would argue against scrapping it due to concerns that an imminent decision on the future of the breakaway province of Kosovo in neighbouring Serbia could raise ethnic tensions in Bosnia.

Bosnian leaders also failed last week to break a year-long deadlock over unification of police forces, a condition for establishing closer ties with the European Union. The EU wants Bosnia to have its 16,000 policemen, now divided into 15 separate police forces, integrated into a single structure that would be politically unbiased and operate across the Balkan country without artificial boundaries.

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