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observers-held-hostage
29 October 2013
News

Observers Held Hostage

Radoša Milutinović BIRN BiH Haag

Testifying at Ratko Mladic’s trial, a former UN military observer says that the Republika Srpska Army, VRS, held him hostage and used him as a “human shield” against NATO air strikes in the spring of 1995.

“We considered that we were unlawfully captured hostages and ‘human shields’,” said Canadian Officer Patrick Rechner, former Chief of unarmed UN’s military observers in Pale.
 
Mladic, the then Commander of the VRS, is charged with having taken more than 200 “blue helmets” and UN observers hostage in late May and at the beginning of June 1995. The indictment alleges that the hostages were used as human shields against NATO air strikes.
 
Rechner said that he was captured, along with two other observers, on May 25, 1995, when NATO began its airstrikes on VRS positions.
 
According to the witness’ testimony, Nikolas Ribic, a Canadian of Serbian origin, who was dressed in “the regular VRS uniform”, threatened the captured observers and their command that they would be killed in case NATO continued its airstrikes.
 
On that same day the witness was enabled to call the cabinet of Republika Srpska President Radovan Karadzic. The witness said that Karadzic’s counsellor Jovan Zametica recommended him to “co-operate”.
 
On May 26 the UN observers, whose hands were handcuffed, were transferred to Jahorinski Potok. Serb soldiers then tied them to poles and the ammunition warehouse door.
 
“The bombardment was still ongoing...We were taken to the ammunition depots, which were bombarded...They tied me to a pole in front of the depot. NATO had already destroyed two of them that morning,” Rechner said.
 
The witness said that the soldiers, who brought and tied them, informed them that they would be killed in case the bombardment continued. 
 
Rechner said that, after having been tied to the pole for five hours, he was transferred to a radar station on Mount Jahorina, where he was tied again. He said that he believed that he would be killed. After that he was returned to a military barrack on Mount Jahorina, where he stayed until his release on June 18, 1995.
 
Miodrag Stojanovic, Mladic’s Defence attorney, said that Rechner and other UN members were captured by paramilitary forces and that VRS had nothing to do with it. Stojanovic said that the whole thing was ordered by Ribic, who was not a member of the VRS.
 
The witness confirmed that, in his previous statements he described Ribic and the others, who captured them, as “something like a paramilitary formation”. However, he pointed out that Ribic described himself as “a VRS soldier” and that he was dressed in military uniform.
 
Attorney Stojanovic said that the VRS considered UN members prisoners of war, not hostages. The witness responded by saying that he did not feel he was a prisoner of war.
 
“They never told us that they would not execute their threats that they would kill us. This is not how prisoners of war are treated according to the Geneva Convention,” Rechner said.

The trial of Mladic is due to continue on Thursday, October 31.




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