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Court exonerates Serbia on genocide in Bosnia

BERLIN—An international court cleared Serbia of direct responsibility for genocide in the deaths of Bosnian Muslims during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, but the court said Monday that the government led by the late President Slobodan Milosevic should have done more to prevent the mass killing.

The 15 judges of the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands—the United Nations' highest court—voted 13-2 against holding Serbia—the successor state to what was then called Yugoslavia—responsible for genocide in the deaths of thousands of Bosnian Muslims. But it voted 12-3 that Serbia should have done more to prevent the deaths of at least 7,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995, a massacre it had earlier ruled constituted genocide.

The decisions shocked many Bosnians. One member of the nation's tripartite presidency, Croat Zeljko Komsic, told Bosnian television: "I do not know what caused this kind of a ruling ..."

Another member of the Bosnian presidency, Muslim Haris Silajdzic, said the decision would make mending relations with Serbia more difficult. "I think good neighborly relations can be developed only on truth and justice, and not denial of truth and genocide," he said on local television.

Across the border in Serbia, ultra-nationalist Tomislav Nikolic told Serb television that the decision confirmed "what the whole world knew. Serbia didn't take part in any genocide."

But Serbian President Boris Tadic said in a statement Monday that there would be "dramatic political and economic consequences" for ignoring suggestions in the court ruling—which included turning over suspected war criminals.

"Today the name of Serbia was mentioned again it the context of war crimes and genocide in all world's media," he said.

The court made it clear that Serbia played an indirect role in the mass killing, ruling that Serbia had provided "considerable" financial and military support to the Republic of Srpska, a breakaway Serb enclave in Bosnia run by extreme nationalists. Had Serbia "withdrawn that support, this would have greatly constrained the options that were available to the Republic of Srpska authorities," the court said.

But the Bosnian government hadn't proved that the massacres "were committed on the instructions, or under the direction" of Serbia or that Serbia "exercised effective control over the operations" during which the massacres were committed, the ruling said.

Dutch attorney Phon Van den Biesen, who headed Bosnia's legal team, said the ruling established that genocide had occurred, that the Bosnian Serb military was behind it and that Serbia was still harboring suspected war criminals—chiefly Radovan Kardadzic, the Bosnian Serb politician, and Gen. Ratko Mladic, the military leader. The court demanded that they be handed over to the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal, a separate body also located in The Hague.

"The court accepted our view of what went on, factually, and that means it is now, officially, history," he said. "Obviously, we would have liked 100 percent victory. But this established a link between Belgrade and Srebrenica, and that is important."

The international court hears only cases involving disputes among states. For this reason, although the court cited the army of the Republic of Srpska as having carried out genocide, it could not rule on the matter, as the republic is a constituent part of Bosnia.

The court also cannot try individuals, but can rule only on cases that states bring before the judges. International court judgments are final (though a state that refuses to abide by the court's decision can be taken to the United Nations Security Council). This case began in 1993 when Bosnia-Herzegovina sued Yugoslavia and demanded billions of dollars in reparations. The two states have exchanged written court filings since 1993, and the court heard witnesses and evidence in 1996 and again last year.

The assault against Bosnian Muslims occurred during the breakup of the multinational state of Yugoslavia. Serbs, who are Christian Orthodox, sought to construct a "Greater Serbia" in republics dominated by other ethnic groups.

Slovenia and Croatia, both with mostly Roman Catholic populations, declared independence in 1991, and Bosnia, with a plurality Muslim population but a large ethnic Serb minority, pursued the same course one year later. Backed by rump Yugoslavia, Bosnian Serbs attacked Muslims and Croats throughout Bosnia in 1992.

The court laid the blame for the Srebrenica genocide on the ethnic Serbs, but it noted that Yugoslavia had facilitated the killings. "There is little doubt that the atrocities in Srebrenica were committed, at least in part, with the resources which the perpetrators possessed as a result of the general policy of aid and assistance by (Yugoslavia)," it said.

However, the court ruled it was not convinced that "at the crucial time, (Yugoslavia) supplied aid to the perpetrators of the genocide in full awareness that the aid supplied would be used to commit genocide." Bosnia had asked for billions in reparations, which the court rejected. But the court did deliver a strong criticism, noting that Serbia/Yugoslavia "did nothing to prevent Srebrenica."

"In the view of the Court, the Yugoslav federal authorities should have made the best efforts within their power to try and prevent the tragic events then taking shape, whose scale might have been surmised," it said.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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