THE HAGUE (Reuters) – Bosnian Serb cousins Milan and Sredoje Lukic were accused on Wednesday of imprisoning and burning alive some 140 Muslims and summarily shooting others in some of the cruelest ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian war.
Both men face charges of murder, extermination and cruel treatment at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague for violence in and around the historic south-eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad during the 1992-95 war.
According to prosecutors Milan Lukic led a Serb paramilitary group known as the “Avengers” or “White Eagles”, joined by his cousin Sredoje, which terrorized the local Muslim population in an attempt to drive them out.
“This case… deals with the responsibility of men who with their own hands perpetrated the crimes of the indictment, spilling the victims’ blood before their own feet,” prosecutor Dermot Groome said in his opening statement on Wednesday.
“These are crimes which reached an unprecedented peak of capricious cruelty not seen anywhere else,” he said, adding the story of Visegrad was one of the most effective cases of ethnic cleansing of the entire war.
Both men have pleaded not guilty to all charges and said they were not present in the town at the time of the crimes.
Groome told the court how in June 1992 the Lukic cousins barricaded around 70 Muslim women, children and elderly into a house, poured flammable liquid on the floor and set it alight, shooting at those who tried to escape through windows.
The oldest victim of the blaze was 71 while the youngest was a 2-day-old baby. Among the dead were 51 members of the same family. A mother and her son who escaped separately and fled only learned three years later that they had both survived.
Groome added that in a final act of cruelty the room where the Muslims died was turned into a pig-sty.
Just one and a half weeks later the Lukic cousins again barricaded around 70 Muslims in a house and set it alight with explosives, Groome said.
A survivor of that blaze, who had gone to school with Milan Lukic would testify in the trial he added.
The indictment also alleges the Lukic cousins selected and marched Muslim men to the banks of the river Drina and shot them in the back, and beat and raped Muslims they detained.
Milan Lukic, who was on the run for almost seven years before his arrest in Argentina in 2005, was described by the court as “perhaps the most significant paramilitary leader tried by the Tribunal to date.”
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was founded in 1993 and is mandated to complete all trials by the end of this year and finish appeals by 2010. Its two most wanted suspects — Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, charged with genocide over the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys, are still fugitive.