General Momir Talic

Army chief charged with war crimes
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The Independent Online

Momir Talic, soldier: born Piskavica, Yugoslavia 15 July 1942; Chief of Staff, Bosnian Serb army 1998-99; died Belgrade 28 May 2003.

When he was arrested on charges of war crimes on 25 August 1999, Momir Talic, at the time the Chief of Staff of the Bosnian Serb Republic's army, was the highest-ranking officer from any of the warring sides in the former Yugoslavia to have been apprehended. He was also the first, and to this day the only, war crimes suspect to have been detained on the basis of a secret arrest warrant while staying abroad.

Talic's arrest in Vienna - where he was attending a conference with senior officers from Bosnia's other entity, the Muslim-Croat Federation - was swift and decisive. During the mid-morning break, the head of the Austrian Military Academy, which was hosting the event, invited Talic to his office. Talic assumed this to be a sign of hospitality so that he would not have to stand in the corridor while drinking his coffee. Instead, he was immediately detained by Austrian police, acting on the basis of a warrant from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). By 9 o'clock that evening he was in the ICTY's custody in The Hague.

In a matter of hours, the career of the Bosnian Serbs' top military officer was over. Indicted on charges of persecuting non-Serbs as part of ethnic cleansing operations in 1992 - charges that were later amended to include genocide - Talic then spent three years in jail until he was released on grounds of ill-health.

Like many other Bosnian Serbs of his generation who grew up in the immediate post-war years, Talic chose the career of a professional soldier in Tito's Communist Yugoslavia. During the Second World War, Bosnia had been incorporated into the pro-Nazi Independent State of Croatia, and the legacy of the many atrocities committed against Serbs - part of reciprocal inter-ethnic violence - was a powerful incentive for Serbs from the region to join the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA). Talic did so at the age of 19 in 1961.

Thereafter he rose steadily through the ranks and, in late March 1992, just two weeks before the outbreak of war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, was appointed commander of the JNA's 5th Corps which was based in Banja Luka in the north-western region of Bosnia. Two months later - following the formal withdrawal of the JNA from Bosnia - his forces were redesignated the 1st Krajina Corps of the Army of the Serb Republic - the military force of the Bosnian Serb die-hard nationalists who opposed Bosnia's independence from the by-then disintegrating Yugoslavia.

Talic was one of the leading officers who, under the command of General Ratko Mladic, the Chief of Staff, formed the Bosnian Serb army from the JNA units based in Bosnia. As a key member of the so-called Crisis Staff in Banja Luka - the self-appointed ethnically based leadership of the region's hardline Serb activists - Talic played a key part in planning, orchestrating and carrying out the ethnic cleansing operations in the region. The objective of this campaign was the forcible removal of Muslims, Croats and other non-Serbs from the area. Throughout the campaign all units under Talic's command were required to report to him on a daily basis.

According to the ICTY's indictment, Talic's 1st Krajina Corps played both a direct and indirect part in this violent campaign. Its units shelled non-Serb settlements before Bosnian Serb police and paramilitary forces, including groups from Serbia, moved in to finish the job. This resulted in the expulsion of over 100,000 Muslims and Croats from the region by the end of 1992.

The region under Talic's military control was also home to some of the most notorious of the wartime detention camps. The Western media's exposure in the summer of 1992 of the appalling conditions in which non-Serb prisoners were being kept in the camps at Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje placed Bosnia firmly at the centre of international attention.

There was little conventional fighting at that stage because the mainly Muslim Bosnian central government had few troops in the region. However, the Serb nationalists portrayed the activities of Talic and his forces not as ethnic cleansing but as straightforward military operations to break through and secure the narrow corridor across northern Bosnia which connected the Serb-held territories in the east to those in the north-west.

After the war ended in1995, Talic kept his command and two years later he was promoted to the rank of Colonel-General. By then a power struggle had already got under way between the Bosnian Serb President, Biljana Plavsic, and her wartime predecessor and erstwhile colleague, Radovan Karadzic. Plavsic accused Karadzic of profiteering from smuggling activities and of trying to undermine her new, more pragmatic approach towards co-operating with the international community. But when she summoned army commanders to a meeting to demonstrate their loyalty, many of the top brass stayed away.

Talic was one of those who did attend the meeting. He also arranged for his 5th Corps to guard Plavsic's presidential building in Banja Luka as Plavsic was facing what appeared to be an attempted coup from Karadzic's circle. Talic's reward was promotion to the post of Chief of Staff.

However, Talic's support for Plavsic and his willingness to work with the multi-national peacekeeping force, Sfor, did not save him from indictment at the hands of the ICTY. The warning signs were already in evidence when Radoslav Brdjanin, the chief of the wartime Crisis Staff in Banja Luka and later Bosnian Serb deputy Prime Minister, was arrested on war crimes charges in June 1999. Brdjanin and Talic had both been charged in secret indictments in March of that year. By then the ICTY's prosecutors had come to the conclusion that any public indictment of Bosnian Serb officials would only encourage war crimes suspects to follow the examples of Karadzic and General Mladic and go into hiding.

However, in spite of the indictment, Sfor did not apprehend Talic - perhaps because of concern over possible bloodshed if his bodyguards tried to prevent his arrest. So it fell to the Austrian police to arrest the unsuspecting general.

Talic denied the charges against him and demanded to be tried by a military court. His trial opened in January 2002, but nine months later he was released on health grounds.

Gabriel Partos