Covert Operations: Unravelling Serbian Officials’ Links to Paramilitaries

As the UN court prepares to rule on whether the Serbian State Security Service chiefs Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic illegally controlled wartime paramilitary units, BIRN looks at how they were deployed in the Croatian and Bosnian conflicts.

Asenior official from the Serbian State Security Service, Franko ‘Frenki’ Simatovic, arrived at a covert paramilitary training camp near the town of Ilok in Croatia in the spring of 1992 – one of many that would allegedly be set up by Serbian security officials during the wars that erupted as Yugoslavia collapsed.

Simatovic came to tell the Serbs who had been trained at the camp that they would soon be deployed to fight in Bosnia, even though Serbia was not officially involved in the Bosnian war.

“We were told where we were going, what our duties were, and that was it,” said one of the Serb fighters who was at the camp, almost two decades later, when he testified at Simatovic’s trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY in The Hague.

“We were told that we should leave all our identification papers behind,” added the fighter, who appeared as a protected witness under the codename JF-047.

JF-047 later explained that one of the reasons for this was that “if we should get killed or taken prisoner, that our personal ID shouldn’t become known and that the fact that the unit had come from Serbia wouldn’t become known”.

On Wednesday, the UN’s International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals in The Hague, which is wrapping up the ICTY’s last cases, will deliver the verdict in the retrial of Simatovic and his former boss, Jovica Stanisic, the wartime head of Serbian State Security.

Stanisic and Simatovic stand accused of organising, financing, training and deploying armed units in the Croatian and Bosnian wars to achieve the goals of a joint criminal enterprise that involved Slobodan Milosevic and the political, military and security leadership of Serbia and the leaders of Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The goal of the joint criminal enterprise was to forcibly remove Croats and Bosniaks from parts of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina that Serbia sought to control, the prosecution alleges.

The marathon proceedings have been going on since 2008. Both men were acquitted in their original trial in 2013, but the verdict was overturned in 2015. They pleaded not guilty when the retrial began.

As the majority of the others alleged to have been part of the joint criminal enterprise with Stanisic and Simatovic have died, including Milosevic and paramilitary boss Zeljko ‘Arkan’ Raznatovic, the verdict is the last chance to show that senior officials from Serbia were involved in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia.

“This is a historically significant opportunity. The last one that the tribunal has to articulate a judgment on the roles of two essential and key members of the joint criminal enterprise, who were very critical for igniting the conflict in both Croatia and then Bosnia Herzegovina,” Adam Weber, who was part of the prosecution team in the case from 2009 to 2013, told BIRN.

‘Fighters went where they were told’

The main fighting units that Stanisic and Simatovic are accused of controlling and deploying to achieve Belgrade’s goals in the Croatian and Bosnian wars are Serbian State Security’s Special Operations Unit (known as the Red Berets), the Serbian Volunteer Guard (nicknamed Arkan’s Tigers) and the Scorpions.

Through witness testimonies and other evidence, the prosecution at Stanisic and Simatovic’s retrial sought to put together a picture of how these units were established and used by the two Serbian security officials.

One witness, Goran Stoparic, who was a member of the Scorpions, testified that “the Scorpions and Arkan’s men were helpful units for the Serbian Security Service”.

“They were under the Serbian Security Service’s influence and they went where they were told. The Serbian Security Service knew where they were, what they were doing, where they would go and everything else,” Stoparic told the court.

Weber said that the paramilitary units were deployed to specific areas that were “of critical strategic importance for the JCE [joint criminal enterprise] as a whole to carry out certain operations and which entailed the commission of crimes”.

“These units were rarely deployed to areas where crimes were not committed,” he added.

One document that forms part of the evidence in the case, dated June 16, 1991 and signed by ‘Frenki’ (Simatovic’s nickname), orders the moving of arms to Golubic, near the town of Knin in eastern Croatia, where a training camp for Special Operations Unit fighters had been set up a couple of months earlier.

The Special Operations Unit started in 1991 in Golubic “largely with the involvement of Franko Simatovic and Captain Dragan, Dragan Vasiljkovic”, said Weber.

“They formed the Golubic training centre and it was at that centre that there were 28 original members of the unit, then many of whom continued to serve as prominent members of the unit for years to come,” he said.

The Golubic training centre was “used as a template then for the establishment of later training facilities in other areas of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia”.

Iva Vukusic, a historian in Conflict Studies at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, said that as well as being a training camp, Golubic was also “an incubator for trainers for other units… almost like a paramilitary capacity-building programme”.

The unit saw its first action in the summer of 1991, taking part in combat activities against Croatian forces in Glina, Struga, Plitvice and Kijevo in Croatia, the ICTY heard in Stanisic and Simatovic’s first trial.

Because of the headgear that its members wore, the Special Operations Unit was known as the Red Berets. They also wore a wolf emblem on their uniforms’ sleeves, and were very occasionally called the Grey Wolves.

Serbian State Security then established another camp in Lezimir, near Fruska Gora in northern Serbia, and then after the Bosnian war began, set up the camp in Pajzos in Croatia which was allegedly used as a base for capturing Bosanski Samac in April 1992.

Further training camps were set up in 1992 at Brcko and Mount Ozren in Bosnia, then at Mount Tara in Serbia and Skelani in eastern Bosnia. The establishment of yet more camps followed in Bajina Basta in Serbia and Bratunac in eastern Bosnia.

From 1991 until 1993, the State Security combat unit mostly operated under the name of the Special Purpose Unit (Jedinica za Posebne Namene, JPN), and then from August 1993 as the Unit for Anti-Terrorist Operations (Jedinica za Antiteroristicka Dejstva, JATD), according to Weber.

Weber explained that “by that time there were many additional members that had been trained and recruited into the unit, it had grown in size, its operations had been all over different places in Croatia and then Bosnia”. Yet more camps were set up in Bilj and Sova in Croatia, then in Pajzos again, where Serbian fighters remained based until 1996.

“We were forced to operate in complete secrecy,” Simatovic said in a speech in 1997.

He said that “47 soldiers were killed and 250 wounded in combat operations at 50 different locations” during the 1990s conflicts. He also listed 26 training camps that had been set up in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia.

Simatovic’s speech, given at a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the unit’s official establishment, was a key piece of evidence in the trial. The prosecution said it shows the extent of Simatovic’s involvement in the unit’s wartime activities.

But some defence witnesses claimed that Simatovic was exaggerating to impress Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who was at the ceremony.

A video recording of the event shows Milosevic shaking hands with various senior Special Operations Unit officers, including their commander, Milorad ‘Legija’ Ulemek. Ulemek is currently serving a sentence for organising the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003 and other criminal activities.

Arkan’s Tigers, the celebrity paramilitaries

While the Red Berets were a covert unit and tried to maintain a low public profile, the Serbian Volunteer Guard led by Zeljko ‘Arkan’ Raznatovic, widely known as Arkan’s Tigers, appeared to court publicity and even posed for photographs in front of a tank with his men, holding a tiger cub.

“Arkan wanted attention, brought cameras, he also was involved with Ceca [famous Serbian singer Svetlana Raznatovic], he was kind of a public figure in a way that no one affiliated with the Red Berets ever was,” Vukusic said.

According to Stanisic and Simatovic’s defence, the Serbian Volunteer Guard was established in October 1990. Former guard member Stojan Novakovic told the retrial that Raznatovic summoned about 20 of his friends, mostly hardcore fans of Red Star Belgrade football club, saying: “Brothers, let us go to the Pokajnica Monastery and swear that we would defend the Serb people if they are threatened.”

Arkan’s men had a well-equipped base in Erdut in Croatia. According to a report by a Yugoslav People’s Army colonel, it had 172 beds for troops.

“There are 80 to 100 soldiers of the Serbian Volunteer Guard in the facility, who are armed with Scorpions [machine pistols] with silencers as personal weapons, and automatic and sniper rifles, also with silencers,” the report said.

Local residents were working as cooking and laundry stuff, the report continued, adding that “there are a number of women (8-12) in the facility, who probably provide sex, but are dressed in uniform and claimed to be soldiers”.

The Serbian Volunteer Guard was active in the Eastern Slavonia area of Croatia in the autumn of 1991 and committed various crimes in the village of Dalj. When the Bosnian war started, they were then sent there to fight.

“Very similarly to the [Special Operations] Unit, the Tigers go through a period of preparation and training, in preparation for operations in Bosnia in 1992, from Erdut and they deploy from Erdut to Bijeljina and Zvornik, they are present there for a period of time and they then participate in the ethnic cleansing operations that occur along the areas in eastern Bosnia,” said Weber.

In Sanski Most, they allegedly killed some 65 people over the course of a couple of days in September 1995.

One of their victims, who was wounded but survived, told Stanisic and Simatovic’s retrial how captives were taken to a nearby village and shot by Arkan’s men in a garage.

“I could see there were already some dead people in the pools of blood. And after I made maybe one or two steps a bullet hit me in the back,” the witness said.

The Scorpions: filming their own crime

“Wait, wait for me to film something,” says the man behind the video camera as a group of soldiers stands in front of abandoned, half-destroyed house.

The next shot on the videotape shows two dead bodies lying in the ground – two of six Bosniak civilians who were killed in a forest near the village of Trnovo after fleeing from Srebrenica in July 1995.

The video of the killings, which was made by the Scorpions unit, was used as evidence in Stanisic and Simatovic’s trial.

The recording, which was played in the courtroom, showed several Scorpions fighters taking the six men from a truck to the forest and shooting four of them in the back, then in the head at close range.

The two remaining prisoners are forced to carry the bodies away, before the Scorpions fighters kill them next to the abandoned house.

Four Scorpions members were later jailed for the crime by a Belgrade court. The verdict established that the Scorpions unit was established in village of Djeletovci, near Tovarnik in eastern Croatia in 1991. Its main purpose was to secure the oil fields that are located in the village.

The Scorpions were mostly active in Djeletovci, but in 1994 and 1995 they were engaged in fighting around Bihac and Velika Kladusa in north-west Bosnia and Herzegovina.

At the beginning, the unit consisted of 20 to 30 people, but in 1993, when it officially was named the Scorpions, it had some 200 to 300 members.

Weber said that “as of 1993 they become more aligned with the Serbian DB [Security Service]”. He said that security service payment lists from that time show that per diem payments were handed out to members of the Scorpions and Arkan’s Tigers.

Witness Goran Stoparic, a member of various Serb units during wartime, confirmed this, telling Stanisic and Simatovic’s retrial that the Scorpions were “sponsored” by the Serbian State Security Service.

After the war in Croatia was over, the majority of the unit’s members found a safe haven in Serbia, before gathering again in 1999 to go to fight in Kosovo.

Vukusic said that evidence suggests that Stanisic and Simatovic were involved in setting up the armed units and making sure that they operated in the way that they did.

But as some of the testimony at the trial was heard behind closed doors, she said that it was hard to know what specific orders they gave to the fighters.

“I think in many ways, these kinds of communications happened with a nod and a wink. You don’t say, ‘Go and kill civilians and rape some people’… I think it works more like ‘this and this town needs to be taken, take these and these units’, and then you just do what needs to be done,” she explained.

On Wednesday, the UN court in The Hague will decide whether or not Stanisic and Simatovic really were responsible for creating these units and sending them to war.

Operation Spider: Serb units aid Bosniak strongman

Operation Pauk (Spider), a series of military actions in north-western Bosnia that started in November 1994 and continued until the summer of 1995, clearly illuminated the connections between Stanisic and Simatovic and Serb paramilitary units. Records from meetings, a military logbook and payment lists from the operation show how the two men coordinated deployment of the units.

“The interesting thing about the Pauk operations obviously is [that] you have all three of the special units that were deployed to those operations that were overseen by Franko Simatovic, and also Jovica [Stanisic] was present in those operations too,” said Adam Weber.

Operation Pauk saw Serbia send members of the Red Berets, Arkan’s Tigers and the Scorpions to aid local Bosniak strongman leader Fikret Abdic, the well-known former head of Yugoslav company Agrokomerc. Abdic had rebelled against the Bosnian wartime government and set up his own separatist statelet called the Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia with its ‘capital’ in the city of Velika Kladusa.

Abdic was fighting against fellow Bosniaks who were loyal to the Sarajevo government. According to a book by journalist Milos Vasic, he “paid for soldiers and military services (air and artillery support)” from the rebel Serbs of the self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina in Croatia and from Serbia.

Serb fighters helped Abdic’s fiefdom to sustain itself until the summer of 1995. Abdic was later convicted in Croatia of war crimes, but after he was released, he was elected mayor of Velika Kladusa.

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