Charles Crawford: Ejup Ganic and the 1992 Volunteer Street Massacre

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The Independent Online

The arrest of former Bosnian leader Ejup Ganic at Heathrow in response to an arrest warrant issued in Belgrade flows from events 18 years ago in Sarajevo.

Back in May 1992 the break-up of communist Yugoslavia was well under way. Slovenia and Croatia had been recognised as independent states. What of the remainder of Yugoslavia as these pieces fell off, above all the most ethnically complex (and contested) republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina?

The Bosnian Muslim (Bosniac) and Bosnian Croat leaderships pushed ahead with an independence referendum which the Bosnian Serbs boycotted, setting up a new 'Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina' (the basis for the Republika Srpska 'entity' later agreed at the Dayton Peace Talks). Feverish international efforts led by Lord Carrington tried to stop things spiralling out of control.

In April 1992 Bosnia and Herzegovina proclaimed itself independent of what remained of Yugoslavia. This forced to the fore the status of Yugoslav military forces loyal to Belgrade but still on Bosnian territory.

A Yugoslav Army (JNA) barracks in Sarajevo was attacked by Bosnia forces on 2 May. Meanwhile Bosniac leader Alija Izetbegovic was captured by JNA soldiers at Sarajevo airport. The UN negotiated an arrangement to free Izetbegovic in return for safe passage by the JNA soldiers out of Sarajevo.

It all went wrong. Izetbegovic escaped. Bosniac forces attacked the JNA convoy at point-blank range, reportedly killing a score or more (the numbers of casualties are disputed). The grim story featured prominently in the much praised Death of Yugoslavia TV documentary series.

This action from the start was claimed by the Serbs to be the highest perfidy. Ejup Ganic, one of the most 'Western' of the Bosniac leadership (educated at Boston's Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology) was identified by the Serbs as a top Bosnians who had ordered the massacre. He denied responsibility.

In the subsequent horrors of the Bosnian conflict this episode has faded from memory in Western capitals. Ganic himself stayed in the Bosniac leadership through the war and into the early years of peace, presenting himself (not unconvincingly) to myself and other internationals as a genial force for common sense and moderation. He latterly has left the political scene, not being trusted by more nationalist Bosniac/Muslim parties in Sarajevo - he was, after all, born in Serbia.

Serbs in both Bosnia and Serbia alike have not forgotten the Dobrovoljacka ('Volunteer') St Massacre. Radovan Karadzic at the Hague Tribunal will insist that it echoed what happened in World War Two as Muslims fought with Nazis against the Serbs; resisting such cruelty by the Bosniacs compelled the Serbs to break with Bosnia in their "just and holy" struggle.

Why has Belgrade launched this attempt to nab Ganic now? The issue has been rumbling on for years below the Western media radar screen. Maybe Belgrade spotted the 'lawfare' issues arising in the UK over visits (or not) by Israeli politicians and decided to see what would happen.

Ganic will have all the Bosnian resources he needs to fight extradition, just as Belgrade will strive to insist that he be handed over. President Tadic in Belgrade is busy urging the Serbian Parliament to face up to the Srebrenica massacre - he loses no domestic support by insisting that those accused of massacres of Serbs also be brought to account.

If the issue is not resolved quickly by his release and return to Sarajevo, expect a prolonged and fascinating legal battle. Bosnia and its EU membership ambitions will be the loser.

Charles Crawford served as British Ambassador in Sarajevo from 1996-98 and then in Belgrade from 2001-2003. He has written extensively about former Yugoslavia on his website