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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 March, 2004, 18:30 GMT
War crimes trial test for Serbs
Serb forces
Serb paramilitary soldiers rejoice after taking over Vukovar in 1991
Six Serbs accused of committing one of the worst atrocities of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia have gone on trial in a special court in Belgrade.

The men are charged with killing some 200 civilians in the Croatian town of Vukovar in 1991.

It is the first major war crimes trial in Serbia and is seen as a test case.

The BBC's Nick Thorpe in Belgrade says victims' relatives and lawyers were absent from court - many are unwilling to visit the land of their former foes.

The youngest killed was 16; the oldest 72.


The session began with the six accused, seated behind bars and bullet-proof glass, listening as the charges and the names of the 192 known victims were read out.

The most dramatic moment in the first day of the trial came when one of the accused, 41-year-old Miroljub Vujovic, passionately proclaimed his innocence.

He claimed he acted as no more than a local guide for a besieging army - the indictment describes him as the regional commander of a Serb paramilitary unit.

Mr Vujovic described in dramatic detail his role in what he called the liberation of Vukovar, but said he was injured at the time of the killings and had the medical records to prove it.

"The indictment is a complete fabrication," he said.

Miroljub Vujovic
Stanko Vujanovic
Jovica Peric
Milan Vojnovic
Ivan Atanasijevic
Predrag Madzarac

The defendants are accused of seizing Croat patients at a hospital in Vukovar after Yugoslav forces entered the town amid heavy fighting in November 1991.

The prisoners were taken to a pig farm, where they were executed in what became known as the Ovcara massacre.


The massacre is the focus of another trial - that of three senior Serb officers before the international war-crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Our correspondent says the two trials appear to dovetail, with the international tribunal dealing with those accused of planning the killings and the court in Belgrade with the alleged foot-soldiers.

Defence lawyers in Belgrade
Lawyers for the accused men plan to prove their innocence

Eight suspects were charged last December and initially denied taking part in the killings, but one later turned prosecution witness in return for immunity.

Another defendant - Mirko Vojnovic, 65 - died on the eve of the trial from injuries sustained in a suicide attempt in January.

Vesna Terselic, of the Centre for Peace Studies in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, told the BBC trials in a national court are better able to "influence public dialogue" than trials abroad.

Nonetheless, she said, national war crimes courts owe their existence to The Hague tribunal and should not seek to replace it.

Human rights fear

The trial is the first since the election in December of a new Serbian government highly critical of the UN war crimes tribunal in the Netherlands.

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said he favours trying suspects at home rather than extraditing them to The Hague.

Human rights groups have expressed concern that the Serb authorities will use the trial to try to prove that individual soldiers were responsible for crimes and that no orders were issued from above.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe last year expressed doubts about Serbia's judicial system to handle sensitive war crimes cases.

The importance of this first trial was highlighted by prosecution spokesman Bruno Vekaric.

"This is a great challenge for Serbian justice and a great test for the later transfer of cases from The Hague tribunal to local justice."

The BBC's Allan Little
"In the Serbian capital finally there is something like atonement"

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