Tribunal hears of Muslim slaughter

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A FORMER British UN peacekeeper yesterday told the Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal how Bosnian Croat troops slaughtered defenceless Muslims in Ahmici village, central Bosnia, then set fire to their homes.

Colonel Bryan Watters, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment, was giving evidence on the second day of the war crimes trial of six Bosnian Croats. The suspects have denied participating in the Ahmici massacre of 16 April 1993.

Around 120 civilians died and not a single Muslim home was spared in the assault, allegedly by troops of the Croatian Defence Council (HVO). Some victims were burned in their homes, others were shot by snipers as they fled.

"This was a ruthlessly efficient military operation." said Watters, who entered Ahmici with a small contingent of British United Nations troops six days after the killings.

Prosecutors say the attack was part of a co-ordinated campaign to drive Muslims out of the Lasva Valley region. Muslim neighbourhoods in the nearby town of Vitez and several other villages were targeted on the same day, but the most vicious assault was reserved for Ahmici.

"Ahmici was used as an example of what would happen if the Muslims did not leave, an example of terror." Watter said.

Asked by prosecutor Albert Moskowitz if he believed the Bosnian Croat military wanted to "cleanse" the area of Muslims, Watters replied: "I was in absolutely no doubt."

He guided the court through photographs and video clips of Ahmici, the burned-out shells of homes in stark contrast to the lush hills. A toppled minaret rested on the rubble of a mosque. "It was shocking, an act of sacrilege against a religious building." Watters said.

A cluster of Croat homes, including those of some of the accused, were unscathed.

Elsewhere the destruction of the mainly Muslim village was absolute. Corpses of sheep and cattle littered the fields, crops and silage containers were destroyed, Watters said.

On the steps of one house, he pointed to the twisted and charred remains of an adult and a child. In the burned ruins of the cellar, Watters said there were more bodies. "(The HVO) made sure there was nothing (for the Muslims) to come back to," he told the court.

Watters is the first prosecution witness in the trial of Zoran Kupreskic, Mirjan Kupreskic, Vlatko Kupreskic, Vladimir Santic, Drago Josipovic and Dragan Papic. The six charged - including two brothers and their cousin - were allegedly HVO troops. They have pleaded not guilty to 19 counts of crimes against humanity and violations of the customs of war. If found guilty, they face up to life imprisonment.

The Ahmici indictment is not the first to deal with alleged atrocities in the Lasva Valley. Bosnian Croat political leader Dario Kordic and Bosnian Croat general Tihomir Blaskic have both pleaded not guilty to charges they bore leadership responsibility for attacks on Muslims in the region.

The International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia began work in 1993 to punish those responsible for a wave of ethnic cleansing which swept Bosnia between its three once-entwined communities - Muslims, Orthodox Serbs and Roman Catholics - following the breakup of Yugoslavia.

It has 26 men in its detention unit in Scheveningen. Another 30 publicly accused are still at large.