THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) - War crimes prosecutors accused three former Yugoslav army officers Tuesday of the premeditated massacre of at least 264 patients, refugees and medical staff at Vukovar hospital in Croatia in 1991, an atrocity that helped propel Yugoslavia into years of warfare that led to its breakup.
At the opening of their trial by the U.N. tribunal for Yugoslavia, two of the three stood before the judges and professed innocence, calling on them to uncover the truth behind the killing and punish the true perpetrators.
Gen. Mile Mrksic, Capt. Miroslav Radic and Col. Veselin Sljivancanin, all ethnic Serbs, are being tried on eight counts of war crimes, including persecution, extermination, murder, torture and inhumane acts.
Sljivancanin was indicted in 1995 for leading the siege of Vukovar, a town on the banks of the Danube River which forms the border with Serbia-Montenegro, formerly Yugoslavia.
The once elegant 14th century town was virtually flattened in a three-month onslaught that killed about 1,700 Croats.
"The city was subjected to a repeated, continuous and often indiscriminate intense artillery and air bombardment, forcing many inhabitants to live in underground shelters or basements," prosecutor Marks Moore said in an opening statement.
Around 1,000-2,000 people were sheltering at the hospital during the intense fighting between Croats and Serb forces that broke out just months after Croatia declared independence from the six-nation Yugoslav socialist federation.
In the last days of the assault, Serb soldiers evacuated around 400 people sheltering in the hospital and took them to a farm. The U.N. indictment says the patients and hospital staff were beaten for hours before being led in groups of 10 and 20 to a nearby field to be executed.
Moore described a hellish scene as the hospital was cleared. Serb soldiers took a pregnant woman and shot her in the vagina, killing her and her unborn baby. More than half of 195 bodies later exhumed from a mass grave had been patients killed by gunshot. Prosecutors say the bodies of 64 are still missing.
Sljivancanin, wearing a black suit and tie, told the court he was a victim of propaganda, never broke the law, and had sought to prevent the deaths of innocent civilians.
"I do not want to use these facts to draw attention from the innocent who were killed, the people from the Vukovar hospital. Those who did commit that crime should meet their just punishment," he said, standing at the defendants table. "After all these years of persecution, all kinds of untruth and agony, I will finally receive justice."
Radic also spoke briefly saying "it is very difficult to bear the burden of being accused of war crimes for which I personally believe I am innocent."
Prosecutors will call witnesses to testify about a meeting six days before the assault on the hospital in November 1991, when a nationalist Serb doctrine was discussed.
"This war is a great test for Serbs. Those who pass the test will become winners. Deserters cannot go unpunished," Serb radical Vojislav Seselj was quoted as having told commanders.
"Not a single Ustacha must leave Vukovar alive," he reportedly said, using a derogatory term for Croat collaborators during World War II. Seselj is facing a separate war crimes trial at the U.N. court.
Charges were dropped against a fourth suspect, Slavko Dokmanovic, who has died.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was established in 1994 to prosecute war crimes during the wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo in the 1990s. It has indicted 161 individuals for alleged atrocities, including former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
Among seven suspects still at large are former Serbian leader Radovan Karadzic and his wartime general, Ratko Mladic, and Croatian Gen. Ante Gotovina.