Serbs fear war crimes trials

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WHEN Sinisa Vucinic, a Serbian paramilitary leader, boasted, 'I killed 640 Croatians in a single day', he doubtless never thought he might one day be indicted for war atrocities.

Now the fear of war crimes trials is haunting Serbia. It is fed by headlines such as 'Nuremberg returns', and by the power struggle between Serbian nationalist hardliners and reformists.

After United Nations Security Council voted on Wednesday night to form a war crimes commission, Serbian militants such as Mr Vucinic are recanting their gory claims. Mr Vucinic's boast of killing 640 Croatians - prisoners of war - in a single day, in Nevesinje, south-east Bosnia, was made in a press interview. Then, he appeared to revel in recalling how he personally plucked out the eyes of his prisoners and tore out their tongues. 'I cut their hands off, very slowly,' he said. Yesterday he claimed the entire report was a falsehood, and said his words were distorted.

Mr Vucinic is not the only militant Serb who is now having second thoughts about his exploits in eastern Croatia and Bosnia. When the biggest paramilitary chief of them all, Zeljko Raznjatovic, known as 'Arkan', stormed the Bosnian town of Bijeljina in April, he casually permitted a photographer from Time magazine to photograph his soldiers carrying out gruesome executions of Muslim civilians.

Gunmen like 'Arkan' enjoyed an intimate connection with the Serbian government and never expected to be brought to account for atrocities. What upset their calculations was the arrival on the Serbian political stage of the new federal Prime Minister, Milan Panic, and the bitter enmity which soon grew up between him and Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Instead of defending men who the pro- Milosevic media insist are 'Serbian patriots', the Panic team have openly favoured war crimes trials. Their reasons are pragmatic. They do not want to delay the lifting of sanctions against Yugoslavia to protect supporters of the Serbian government who have blood on their hands. Although they might not care to admit it, the atrocity issue is a convenient weapon to attack President Milosevic.

'It would not be good if Yugoslavia were left out of the act of establishing crimes on the territory of the former Yugoslavia,' said Tibor Varadi, the federal Justice Minister. 'The crimes in this civil war, which has been extremely brutal, exist on all sides. It is natural such people should be punished. It is up to the (UN commission) to ascertain how many there were.' Mr Varadi said the federal government should actively co-operate with the UN commission when it is formed.

Die-hard opponents of the Serbian government, led by Vuk Draskovic, have added their vehement support for war crimes trials. They gleefully bargain on the entire Serbian regime being dragged down by any investigation of atrocities.

The rejoicing of the Serbian opposition over the spectre of a Nuremberg process in Belgrade may be premature - Mr Draskovic at one time fielded his own volunteer units in Croatia, whose conduct was far from angelic. Nor can the Croatian President, Franjo Tudjman, afford to be sanguine about an investigation. But reports of Croatian atrocities are far fewer than of their Serbian counterparts, and Mr Tudjman - unlike Mr Milosevic - has kept a distance between his government and the paramilitary extremists.

Mr Tudjman has waged an unrelenting war against the Croatian Party of Rights, whose paramilitary wing, known as HOS, may be involved in mass killings. The government in Zagreb yesterday issued a warrant for the arrest of four leaders of the group. No one doubts that the Serbian government under Mr Milosevic has by far the most to lose from any international investigation of atrocities.