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Piece by Piece, Truth About Bosnia’s War Crimes Emerges

February 12, 1996

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ A Bosnian Serb colonel defies the world to find proof that his comrades are guilty of systematic war crimes. ``Let them come,″ he says.

Is his dare based on a clean conscience? Or on a cocky hope that evidence of horrific mass killings will go undiscovered?

The final truth has yet to emerge. It is like a ghastly jigsaw puzzle, coming together piece by piece. The numbers are dizzying _ perhaps tens of thousands of victims, buried in up to 300 mass graves across Bosnia.

The hunt for evidence by the international war crimes tribunal and Bosnian government investigators is intensifying. Suspected mass graves are likely to be exhumed this spring.

In Banja Luka, a Serb stronghold, a brave Roman Catholic bishop tells a tale of massacre that suggests Serb commanders not long ago were blase about atrocities.

It was July 25, 1992. Bosnian Serb troops moved into Brisevo, a tranquil village of Catholic Croats in the Serb-controlled northwest. Without provocation, the soldiers gunned down almost everyone there _ 70 men, women, children, says Bishop Franjo Komarica.

Komarica, throughout the war one of the few outspoken human rights advocates in Serb territory, went to Brisevo a week after the killings. A Serb commander, trying to be helpful, acknowledged the massacre had occurred and even provided the names of the soldiers responsible.

But when Komarica asked if the men would be punished, the commander just shrugged.

That response _ recounted by Komarica during a two-hour interview _ helps explain the skepticism greeting the recent assertions of top Serb leaders that they will cooperate with international war crimes investigators.

``Let them come,″ said Lt. Col. Milovan Milutinovic, chief spokesman for the Bosnian Serb military. ``The army has no worries ... they won’t find anything.″

In an interview, Milutinovic scoffed at the increasing allegations about mass killings. He said anyone is welcome to inspect a trio of mines west of Banja Luka _ Ljubija, Tomasnica and Omarska _ where Serb soldiers allegedly buried thousands of slain Muslims and Croats in 1992.

International human rights experts have indeed inspected the mines, although no exhumation work has been done yet.

Despite Milutinovic’s bravado, evidence of atrocities _ sometimes solid, sometimes sketchy _ is mounting across Bosnia.

``A lot of evil has happened here,″ Komarica said. ``Sooner or later, everything that has been done will come to light.″

The U.S. State Department’s top human rights official, John Shattuck, said during a recent visit to the Srebrenica area that Serbs may have killed up to 7,000 Muslim men there after overrunning the enclave last July.

Bosnian army officials have identified dozens of possible mass graves nationwide. The commander of the NATO force in Bosnia, U.S. Navy Adm. Leighton Smith, says there could be 200 to 300 such graves.

In most cases, the Bosnian government says it will not begin excavating suspected mass graves on its own territory until international investigators inspect the sites.

In central Bosnia, judicial investigators of the Muslim-led Bosnian government say an estimated 3,000 slain Muslims may be buried around Kljuc and Sanski Most, towns retaken from the Serbs by Muslim forces last fall.

Kasim Ibrahimbegovic, editor of a newspaper in Sanski Most, said one recent find was a grave containing corpses of 27 men believed to have suffocated in a truck in 1992 while being driven to a notorious Serb-run detention camp at Manjaca.

Ibrahimbegovic estimates 40,000 non-combatant Muslims had been killed in northwestern Bosnia.

Some foreign relief officials believe the Serbs will have to cooperate with war crimes investigations as a condition for obtaining badly needed economic aid. But a Banja Luka journalist with a reputation for independence says he has detected no sign of any willingness by Serb leaders to acknowledge systematic abuses.

``The great majority of the people here can’t accept that the Serbs committed any war crimes,″ said Spasoje Perovic, editor of a weekly paper.

Bosnian Serb news media depicted Shattuck’s recent visit to Srebrenica as proof of Serb cooperation but did not report Shattuck’s assertion that he had solid evidence of mass killings.

The issue of mass killings has elicited diverse emotions from Bosnians on all sides. Some demand an exhaustive investigation to expose the extent of the atrocities; others suggest it would be better to move beyond recriminations.

Sladjan Skoro, a Serb soldier strolling through downtown Banja Luka, said some of his comrades probably did commit war crimes, but he expressed no outrage.

In this sentiment, the legacy of World War II plays its part. Tens of thousands of Serbs were killed during that war in Bosnia, many of them dumped in mass graves.

``I personally don’t approve mass killings, but I understand that urge for revenge,″ said Skoro. ``Whatever our army did was in revenge for what they (Croats and Muslims) did to us in World War II.″

``I doubt that top leaders ordered such killings, but I’m sure they must have heard about them,″ he added.

Like many Serbs, Skoro says he has no objections to war crimes trials, provided suspects from all sides are tried.

Milutinovic, the Serb military spokesman, echoes this argument, citing details of an alleged massacre of 50 Serbs by a Muslim commander near the central city of Zenica.

In Kljuc, an 18-year-old Muslim, Mustafa Muftic, told of seeing Muslim women raped and murdered as he fled a Serb offensive in 1992.

``Those whose families were raped and killed would like to get the revenge themselves,″ he said.

One of his neighbors, Emira Draganovic, said the war criminals must have been mentally disordered ``because no normal person would do such things.″

``But they should be tracked down and punished, even if they were all deranged,″ said Mrs. Draganovic, who suffered a miscarriage during shelling while serving in the Bosnian army during the war.

In Banja Luka, Bishop Komarica expressed mixed feelings about possible war crimes prosecutions.

``As a Christian, I would opt for forgiveness,″ he said. ``But the international community has its own rules, and should punish those who violated them.″

Whatever happens before the war crimes tribunal, it will not absolve foreign governments of blame for failing to halt Serb atrocities in 1992, Komarica said.

``They knew what was going on and they could have prevented it from the very beginning,″ he said. ``For the victims, a trial is scant satisfaction.″

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