Sat, Jul 10, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Croatian general pleads `not guilty' to Hague charges

REUTERS , AMSTERDAM

A former Croatian general charged with responsibility for atrocities by troops under his command in a 1993 operation against rebel Serbs pleaded not guilty to war crimes at The Hague tribunal on Thursday.

Mirko Norac, regarded at home as a hero of Croatia's war of independence from the Yugoslav federation, was charged with five counts of crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war in the Krajina region of Croatia.

Norac, a commander of the Ninth Guards Motorized Brigade at the time of the 1993 attack, rose to the rank of Major General in the Croatian army in 1995. He was discharged from the army in 2000.

Norac, 36, now serving a 12-year prison sentence in the northern Adriatic city of Rijeka for a separate attack on Serb civilians in 1991, flew to the Netherlands earlier in the day on a special flight.

"I plead not guilty, your honor," Norac told the court in a Web cast of his initial appearance at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Croatia has this year dramatically improved cooperation with the tribunal, essential if its bid to become an EU member is to succeed.

Two other Croat generals and six Bosnian Croats have surrendered voluntarily this year.

Charges against Norac include destruction and plunder of Serb property, murder and cruel and inhumane treatment of civilians and captured soldiers, including burning alive one Serbian woman and mutilating another.

Norac's trial is one of several that UN prosecutors would like to take place in Croatia as part of the tribunal's exit strategy, under which the tribunal would focus on high-profile suspects and transfer lower-ranking cases to local courts.

At the time of the attack, which expelled 400 Serb civilians from the region, Norac was a commander of and led a group formed for the purpose of conducting the operation, the indictment says.

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