Croatian army general surrenders to UN war crimes tribunal

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A Croatian army general arrived in the Netherlands on Wednesday to surrender to the UN war crimes tribunal, the first Croat to face charges stemming from the four–year Serbo–Croat war ending in 1995.

Wearing his military uniform and medals, Gen. Rahim Ademi flew with his wife Anita and a lawyer from Zagreb. A Dutch police car and two unmarked vans with tinted windows waited for him at the gate at Schiphol international airport.

Ademi is accused of overseeing a wartime campaign that left dozens of Serbs slain and their homes reduced to ashes. He has said he has done nothing wrong.

Ademi was escorted from the regularly scheduled Croatian Airlines flight by three plainclothes policemen. The convoy pulled out of the terminal for the half–hour drive to The Hague, seat of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Court spokesman Jim Landale said Ademi will soon make his first appearance in court, possibly as early as Thursday, to enter a plea of guilty or innocent.

"He decided to voluntarily surrender. The prosecutor therefore hopes he will cooperate with the prosecution and answer its questions," said Florence Hartmann, spokeswoman for Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte.

Detainees go through an induction process at the U.N. detention unit in the Dutch prison at Scheveningen, a seaside suburb of The Hague. They undergo a medical examination and formally receive the indictment.

The tribunal, which had kept the indictment secret until Wednesday, published charges that included five counts of crimes against humanity and of violating the laws and customs of war.

It specifically charged him with murder, persecution and the plunder of property.

Ademi will join former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who was handed over to the tribunal by the government of Serbia last month, and 38 other war crimes suspects. Milosevic is being kept separate from other detainees for the first month.

Ademi traveled from Croatia without a police guard. His two daughters were at the airport in Zagreb to bid him farewell.

"I am proud of my role in the war," he told The Associated Press before he left. "I am not afraid of The Hague court's accusations – I have done nothing wrong in the war and I will prove it there. My conscience is completely clear."

The tribunal indicted Ademi along with another high–ranking Croatian officer and demanded that both suspects be handed over for trial. Croatia's pro–Western government agreed to comply, but its decision triggered fierce protests by veterans and nationalists who supported the late President Franjo Tudjman, who see Croatian fighters as heroes and patriots, not criminals.

Many Croats have struggled to come to grips with the indictments of military leaders they believe saved the country from Serb forces who indiscriminately shelled villages and cities, killed thousands of civilians and expelled many more from their homes.

The second suspect – widely believed to be retired Gen. Ante Gotovina – has indicated a refusal to surrender, and his loyalists have threatened unrest if he is arrested. A warrant has been issued for his arrest, but he remains at large.

The charges against Ademi stem from a 1993 government offensive in southwestern Croatia, an operation aimed at regaining territory seized by Serb rebels during the 1991 independence war.

"The scale of physical destruction and killing of residents ... indicates that the Croatian Army practiced a comprehensive scorched–earth policy," said a U.N. report issued a month after the September 1993 operation.

The report said the evidence indicated "the intentional killing of Serb civilians, regardless of age, sex or status." U.N. police found 18 bodies – 10 of them in civilian clothes – and most were "riddled with multiple bullet wounds or incinerated," the report said.

Seven of the victims were women who appeared to be older than 60, among them the 84–year–old blind woman, whose slaying was documented by a witness. Another 52 bodies were turned over to the Serbs by Croatian authorities, the report said.

Under pressure from the West, Croatian troops withdrew from the recaptured territories soon afterward. The United Nations later charged that retreating Croatian forces burned down villages, set thousands of Serb homes ablaze and killed about 70 Serb civilians, describing the brutal operation as a "scorched–earth campaign."

Ademi, a Croatian citizen of Kosovo Albanian origin, was in command of that military operation.

Faced with Western government demands to punish the perpetrators, Tudjman suspended Ademi at the time – effectively putting the blame on him. In recent interviews, Ademi has claimed he was a commander in a purely formal sense and that other military officers were actually in charge.

The government, pleased by his surrender, promised to provide files that could help his defense before the tribunal, which was set up by the U.N. Security Council to bring to justice those who committed atrocities in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and its aftermath.