Yugoslav general flies to war crimes tribunal

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The Independent Online

A Yugoslav general accused of directing the bombardment of Dubrovnik in 1991, which killed 43 people and destroyed part of its historic centre, flew to The Hague yesterday after surrendering to the UN war crimes tribunal.

Pavle Strugar, 68, was the first Yugoslav citizen to surrender voluntarily to the court. He claims he is innocent of the charges of murder and violation of the laws and customs of war.

The artillery siege of Dubrovnik began in October 1991, a few months after the Croatian government under Franjo Tudjman declared its independence from Yugoslavia. The bombing of the UN World Cultural Heritage Site, known by many as the Pearl of the Adriatic, came to symbolise the brutality of the war.

The attack served little strategic purpose because the city was practically defenceless and it was an entirely self- defeating act in terms of propaganda.

Television viewers in the West were aghast at the sight of Dubrovnik's citizens cowering for protection beneath their ancient city walls as the baroque church domes and red-tiled roofs became pock-marked and shrouded in black smoke.

But as he departed for the Netherlands, General Strugar insisted his military record was unblemished. "I was a soldier for 42 years. I have always worked in a dignified and human manner towards people and my country. I have been dignified and human in a war, too. I am not a criminal," he said.

General Strugar had advertised his willingness to surrender to The Hague in advance but because of a kidney ailment had spent weeks in hospital in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica.

Three others accused of masterminding the attack – Admiral Miodrag Jokic, Admiral Milan Zec and Captain Vladimir Kovacevic – have also been indicted by the court but remain at large, possibly in Serbia. If convicted they face a maximum sentence of life in prison.

General Strugar's surrender came just ahead of a visit to the Balkans by Carla Del Ponte, the tribunal's chief prosecutor, who is expected to press the authorities in Serbia to extradite the other suspects during her visit to Belgrade today, as well as three former soldiers indicted for a 1991 massacre in the Croatian city of Vukovar.

According to the indictment, between 1 October and 6 December 1991 about 1,000 shells fired by Yugoslav forces landed in the Old Town. A Unesco survey after the bombardment reported that more than two-thirds of the 824 buildings in the Old Town area had been damaged. The cost of repairing the streets, squares, fountains, ramparts and gates was estimated at more than $9.5m (£6.6m).

Ten years on, restoration work has still not been completed. Apart from the cost in human life, the bombing of the city dealt a shattering blow to Croatia's tourist industry, one of the republic's principal money-spinners and one that relied substantially on the foreign currency generated by visitors to Dubrovnik. The Croatian tourist industry, too, is only now emerging from the doldrums.

Many people in Dubrovnik are pleased that the trial is about to start, even if they think it comes too late. One doctor commented: "So much time has passed. It would have been much more effective if it had happened five years go.

"But everyone in Dubrovnik will be pleased because somebody has to answer for the tragedy they caused."