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Last Updated: Friday, 13 June, 2003, 15:24 GMT 16:24 UK
Vukovar massacre: What happened
By Gabriel Partos
BBC south east Europe analyst

Vukovar was a modestly prosperous, sleepy, provincial town in eastern Croatia, near the border with Serbia, noted for its picturesque baroque architecture. That was before the war for Croatia's independence erupted in July 1991.

By the end of its three-month siege at the hands of Serb forces in November 1991, Vukovar had become utterly devastated.

Vukovar, 1991
Vukovar suffered a three-month siege by Serb forces

It was, perhaps, the most comprehensively destroyed town of any size in either Bosnia-Herzegovina or Croatia during the wars of the first half of the 1990s.

Capture of the town was an important strategic objective for the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army. It was designed to consolidate Serb control over the region of Croatia known as eastern Slavonia.

That objective was achieved, even though there was little left, apart from than ruins, following the siege.

It was also accompanied by the ethnic cleansing of Croats, who prior to the war were present in Vukovar municipality in roughly the same numbers as Serbs.

Croat defenders of Vukovar later claimed that the town could have been saved from capture by Serb forces if the nationalist President Franjo Tudjman had been willing to send reinforcements.

Mr Tudjman was accused of deliberately sacrificing Vukovar - dubbed the Croatian Stalingrad because of its devastation - so as to reinforce his portrayal of Croatia as the victim of Serb aggression.

Grim events

Whatever the late President Tudjman's intentions, Vukovar has since become a symbol of destruction - and atrocities.

When the Serb forces took control of Vukovar on 19 November 1991, several hundred people took refuge in the town's hospital in the hope that they would be evacuated in the presence of neutral observers.

A deal to that effect had earlier been agreed in negotiations between the Yugoslav army and the Croatian government.

But instead of the hoped-for evacuation, about 400 individuals - including wounded patients, soldiers, hospital staff and Croatian political activists - were removed from the hospital by Yugoslav army and Serb paramilitary forces.

According to The Hague Tribunal's indictment, which was originally issued in 1995, three Yugoslav army officers, Colonel Mile Mrksic, Major Veselin Sljivancanin and Captain Miroslav Radic, oversaw the removal of some 300 men to Ovcara farm, four kilometres outside Vukovar.

The detainees were beaten up. Some died of their injuries and approximately 260 of them were executed and then buried in a mass grave.

Details of the Vukovar massacre soon began to emerge as survivors reported on the events, and doubts began to appear about the large number of missing detainees.

But it took several years of exhumations and painstaking investigations to gather the evidence that formed the basis of the Tribunal's indictment.

Trail of guilt

Subsequently, the Tribunal also issued the first of its sealed, secret indictments; against the wartime Serb mayor of Vukovar, Slavko Dokmanovic.

With the three army officers out of the Tribunal's reach in President Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia, and with the danger that Mr Dokmanovic might escape from eastern Slavonia across the border to Yugoslavia if he were to be publicly indicted, his arrest by UN forces was swiftly accomplished in 1996.

Two years later Mr Dokmanovic hanged himself in prison while awaiting the verdict at the end of his trial in The Hague.

Miroslav Radic in Vukovar, 1991
Miroslav Radic: Accused of role in Vukovar massacre

Mr Mrksic and Mr Radic surrendered to the Tribunal after Belgrade began to enact laws on the extradition of indicted war crimes suspects last year.

Mr Sljivancanin's arrest will now make it possible to go ahead with the trial of all members of the group known as the "Vukovar Three".

Vukovar, as part of eastern Slavonia, was the only region of Croatia's rebel Serb-held areas to escape capture by the Croatian army in 1995.

Because it was spared a military campaign in that year with the subsequent refugee exodus, it has also remained the only region with a substantial ethnic Serb community.

After the Dayton peace treaty for Bosnia and the Erdut agreement for Croatia brought the wars in the region to an end, eastern Slavonia was placed under UN administration for two years.

It was finally reintegrated with Croatia in 1998. Since then the painful process of reconstruction has been underway.

The BBC's Carole Walker reports from Vukovar in 1991

In pictures: Sljivancanin arrest clashes
13 Jun 03  |  Photo Gallery
Most wanted: The 'Vukovar Three'
19 Apr 02  |  Europe
At a glance: Hague tribunal
20 Feb 03  |  Europe

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