By DUSAN STOJANOVIC
Associated Press Writer
7 June 2005
Associated Press Newswires
(c) 2005. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.
BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro (AP) - They were known as the "Scorpions," Serbian paramilitaries who swooped down on Bosnian or Kosovo Albanian villages to loot, torture, rape and murder.
On Tuesday, U.N. war crimes prosecutors presented evidence that former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's police directly controlled the unit, contradicting his testimony that its members operated on their own.
The Scorpions were one of several Serbian paramilitary groups that spread fear and conducted ethnic cleansing operations against non-Serbs during the Balkans wars that accompanied the splintering of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, military analyst Dejan Anastasijevic said.
U.N. war crimes prosecutors in The Hague, Netherlands, on Tuesday showed a 1999 police document that says the Scorpions were a part of the Serbian Special Anti Terrorist Unit and not a vigilante group seeking to help ethnic Serbs as Milosevic has claimed.
The document earlier was shown on Belgrade's independent B-92 television.
War crimes prosecutors contend the unit was part of Serbia's regular police from the early 1990s. Directly linking Milosevic with wartime atrocities is vital for the prosecutors' case against him.
When presented with the document in court, defense witness Obrad Stevanovic, who was deputy interior minister during Milosevic's rule, said he didn't doubt its authenticity, but insisted only some of the Scorpions' members were regular police officers.
The Scorpions, some 150 shaven-head men, gained international notoriety last week with the televising of a gruesome video that showed gunmen identified as unit members kill six Slavic Muslim prisoners near the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995.
After the broadcast, Serbia's leaders acknowledged for the first time that their country had a role in the slaughter of nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys after Serb forces captured Srebrenica, the worst mass killing in Europe since World War II.
The video showed Serb paramilitaries prodding the six gaunt young Bosnians -- their hands tied behind their backs -- through tall grass, and then spraying them in the back with machine gun bullets.
"The Scorpions were not the only Serb police or special military unit that operated covertly in Srebrenica in 1995," Anastasijevic said. "Several other were there as well, but sadly that fact still remains a state secret in Serbia."
"Their job was to kill," said Natasa Kandic, Serbia's most prominent rights activist, who discovered the video this year and delivered it to the war crimes tribunal.
"They would enter a village, plundering, raping and killing," said Kandic, whose Center for Humanitarian Law investigates crimes committed by Serbs during the Balkan wars.
She said the paramilitaries, some recruited from inmates in Serb prisons, got a monthly salary from the Serbian government equivalent to $1,000 -- about 10 times what the average Serb earned.
Many Serbs have considered the Scorpions heroes. But the horror of the Srebrenica footage led to widespread vilification of the Scorpions in Serbia in the past week. On Tuesday, leading political parties announced they would pass a declaration in parliament condemning war crimes, including the Srebrenica massacre.
The last known Scorpion mission was in Serbia's province of Kosovo in 1999 during NATO bombing that stopped Milosevic's crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.
The unit's commander, Sasa Cvjetan, was convicted in Serbia last year of war crimes and sentenced to 20 years in prison for the murder of 14 ethnic Albanian civilians and the wounding of five children when the Scorpions stormed the Kosovo town of Podujevo in March 1999.
The verdict was overturned by Serbia's Supreme Court for procedural flaws in his trial and a retrial started in Belgrade on Monday.
Saranda Bogojevci, an Albanian teenager, described during Cvjetan's trial last year how the Scorpions jeered before gunning down her mother, aunts, grandparents, cousins and other relatives in a hail of bullets in Podujevo.
The soldiers forced the family into the street, strip-searched them and marched them through the town center and past the police station before taking them to a garden, she testified.
"They told us to hold our hands up in the air and leave our belongings outside the house," Bogojevci said. "They were shouting, laughing and cursing us. ... Then they started shooting."