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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 March, 2004, 20:13 GMT
Serbs welcome 'mini-Hague'
Six Serbs went on trial in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, on Tuesday in the country's first major war crimes trial, accused of committing one of the worst atrocities of the recent wars in the former Yugoslavia. They are charged with killing some 200 civilians in the Croatian town of Vukovar in 1991.

The BBC's Nick Thorpe reports on the day's events and local feelings about the trial.

The six accused sit in the courtroom behind bars and bullet-proof glass, flanked by policemen.

Serb troops lead Croat civilian after entry into Vukovar in 1991
Little is known in Serbia of the plight of Croats in Vukovar
The first to testify was 41-year-old Miroljub Vujovic. According to the indictment, he was one of the commanders of the Serb Territorial Defence, which took part with the Yugoslav army in the siege of Vukovar, in 1991.

The names of 192 people, the youngest 16 years old, the oldest 72, and including two women, were read out in court.

They comprise most of the victims, taken from the hospital where some were patients and others took shelter when the city fell. According to the prosecution, they were taken by bus, beaten then killed in cold blood, and buried in a mass grave.

In a passionate plea of innocence, Miroljub Vujovic denied he was a commander of the territorial forces at all.

Instead, he said, he was a civilian with excellent local knowledge of Vukovar, useful to the forces taking part in what he called the liberation of the city.

The judge and counsel for the prosecution then questioned him on what they said appeared to be contradictions in his story - his close relationship with Yugoslav army officers in the period after the siege, and confusion surrounding whether he was or was not a soldier.

As proceedings ended on the first day, relatives of the accused and the defence lawyers packed the corridors of the specially built courtroom.

Pioneering work

There are no relatives of the victims present, because they are still afraid to travel to Serbia. But Croatian human rights groups were represented at the trial.

Serbs have never received a fair trial in The Hague - that's why I think a tribunal here is good
Serb refugee from Croatia
"Trials in national courts do have more influence on public dialogue than trials in The Hague," said Vesna Terselic, of the Centre for Peace Studies in Zagreb, Croatia.

But she added that they were only possible now, thanks to the pioneering work of the Hague tribunal.

The courtroom gave the appearance of a mini-Hague, a child of the Hague almost, and much of the prosecution evidence was supplied by the International Tribunal.

On the streets of Belgrade, people welcomed the start of the trial.

People cannot travel much - most of the information they have is from personal witnesses of war crimes
Srdjan Bogosavljevic
Public opinion agency manager
"Every human being who has committed some crime should be prosecuted," said Vajna, an employee at a telecommunications firm. "If the system is ready, they should be tried here."

"Serbs have never received a fair trial in The Hague," said Ivan, himself a Serb refugee from Croatia. "That's why I think a tribunal here is good."

"The basic problem in the past has been where people get their information," said Srdjan Bogosavljevic, manager of Strategic Marketing, a public opinion agency in Belgrade.

"This is a pretty closed country. People cannot travel much, because of the strict visa regimes of other countries. Most of the information they have is from personal witnesses of war crimes - the 900,000 Serb refugees from Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo."

And those refugees talk about their own flight, and expulsion from war zones. The plight of Croats in Vukovar and elsewhere in parts of Croatia seized by the Serbs in 1991, and the plight of Bosnian Muslims and Croats, or Kosovar Albanians, at Serb hands, has never been widely told in Serbia.

Political role?

While the work of the Special War Crimes Court in Belgrade appears to dovetail with that of the Hague tribunal, there could be tensions ahead.

The Hague focuses increasingly on top military and political leaders, accused of "command responsibility" for the crimes. Trials like this one focus on those allegedly responsible for pulling the trigger.

Some human rights activists in Serbia worry that the trial has a political role.

"The idea behind this trial is apparently to show that the Yugoslav army is not responsible for what was done in Vukovar and elsewhere," said Sonja Biserko, of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights.

Testimony already given at the Hague tribunal, she said, showed that the army was an important part of a wider project, to expel non-Serbs and create a Greater Serbia.

The BBC's Nick Thorpe
"This is very much a test case"

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