Court Records Reveal Croatian Units’ Role in Operation Storm Killings

Troops in action during Operation Storm. Photo: ICTY archive.

Court Records Reveal Croatian Units’ Role in Operation Storm Killings

BIRN’s analysis of Hague Tribunal evidence has revealed which Croatian military and police units were deployed in villages where Serb civilians were killed during and after 1995’s Operation Storm - but none of their commanders has ever been indicted.

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Map showing crimes of murder, inhumane treatment and torture, wanton destruction and plunder of property which the ICTY found to have been proven beyond reasonable doubt. Each pin colour marks a different type of crime. Click on a pin to see the location and date of a crime, and also the name of the victims (in cases of murders and torture). Source of data: ICTY.

This was one of a series of similar attacks in which Serb civilians, mostly elderly, were killed or tortured happened during and after Operation Storm, which saw Croatian forces defeat the rebel Serbs and oust their self-proclaimed statelet, the Republic of Serbian Krajina.

Several hundred Serbs were killed during and after the operation, according to the Croatian Helsinki Committee, and more than 200,000 fled to Serbia.

Generals Gotovina, Markac and Cermak were tried at the ICTY in The Hague for being part of a joint criminal enterprise to commit crimes against humanity against Croatian Serbs during Operation Storm.

They were accused of planning, organising or participating in murders, persecution, deportations and destruction of property aimed at “the permanent removal of the Serb population from the Krajina region”.

Gotovina and Markac were convicted under the first-instance verdict, while Cermak was found not guilty. However, the two convicted generals were then acquitted on appeal, sparking jubilation in Croatia, where the army’s victory in Operation Storm is celebrated each year as one of the crucial factors in creating today’s independent Croatia.

Map for Operation Storm prepared by Croatian general Ante Gotovina. Photo: ICTY.

The acquittals meant that crimes committed during and after Operation Storm, like the killings of the Serb villagers from Uzdolje, went unpunished.

The first-instance verdict in the trial established that some of these crimes were committed by Croatian soldiers or members of police special forces but did not name those who were directly responsible.

In this investigation, by analysing evidence from the case against Gotovina, Markac and Cermak at the ICTY, BIRN has managed to establish which units were present in the field when the killings took place.

Some of the leaders of these units have held high-profile positions after the war – one had a senior role at the Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs, another was Croatia’s defence minister for several years, one of them just won a seat in parliament at the recent elections in Croatia, and another is a local mayor.

Perpetrators’ names still unknown

Colour photographs presented as prosecution evidence at the ICTY. Photo: ICTY.

Operation Storm started in the early morning of August 4, 1995 as Croatian armed forces shelled the town of Knin, the ‘capital’ of the rebel Serbs’ unrecognised Republic of Serbian Krajina, as well as targeting Benkovac, Obrovac, Gracac and surrounding villages.

The Republic of Serbian Krajina’s armed forces, left without support from Serbia itself, offered little resistance and the operation was over in four days. Serb forces started to withdraw and the local Croatian Serb population left with them, mostly heading for Serbia or the Serb-controlled part of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

However, as court records show, there were people who decided to stay. The majority of them were very old or unable to move out, and their decision to stay left them among the few remaining inhabitants in their villages.

There is no official data on how many of them were killed in the aftermath of Storm: the ICTY indictment listed 38 deaths in the part of Croatia that the UN called ‘Sector South’, while the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in 2001 listed 410 civilians killed in ‘Sector South’, and 677 in total. Meanwhile a United Nations Civilian Police Monitors (UNCIVPOL) on September 19, 1995 listed 65 people killed after August 4.

One of the incidents listed in both the ICTY indictment and the Croatian Helsinki Committee report was the killing of the seven people in Uzdolje, some 13 kilometres south of Knin on the road to Drnis – the shooting that Witness 67 survived.

At the time, the area was under the control of the Croatian Army’s Sibenik Operational Group.

The Sibenik Operational Group’s log during Operation Storm, which covers the period from August 4-7, detail its units’ deployment in the area.

Click to enlargeCroatian Army operations logbook during Operation Storm, August 4-7, 1995. Source: ICTY.

Click to enlargeCroatian Army operations logbook during Operation Storm, August 4-7, 1995. Source: ICTY.

On the morning of August 5, the Sibenik Operational Group’s 142nd Home Guard Regiment took the village of Zitnic, some 18 kilometres from Uzdolje. The log shows that their commander ordered them to enter Drnis and some hours after that, “to advance towards Knin”.

Later that day, the commander ordered one part of the unit to “continue with the attack…. with the goal of arriving in the 4th sector of Vrbink; there merging with the forces of the 7th Guards Brigade”.

On August 6, the logbook noted that the 142nd Home Guard Regiment and the 7th Guards Brigade linked up in Potkonje. Both Vrbnik and Potkonje are near Knin.

The presence of the 142nd Home Guard Regiment in this area, in which Uzdolje is also located, is further established by a report about security for the Sibenik Operational Group, written by captain Matko Kurtovic and sent on August 11.

Some efforts have been made to identify the perpetrators.

In August 2017, Zagreb-based NGO Documenta – Centre for Dealing with the Past filed a criminal complaint to the Croatian state attorney’s office saying that unknown perpetrators killed ten mostly elderly Serb civilians in Uzdolje and the surrounding hamlets located south of Knin in August 1995.

The State Attorney’s Office in Sibenik told BIRN that it is working with the police on investigations “in order to determine all the circumstances of the deaths of persons in these places as well as to identify the perpetrators”.

But although evidence clearly exists about which units were in the area at the time, no one has yet been indicted – a pattern that is repeated in other cases related to Operation Storm 25 years ago.
The ‘Pumas’ and the ‘Spiders’

Click to enlargeTranscript of testimony given by witness P-069. Source: ICTY.

North of Knin, crimes were also committed by Croatian forces during Operation Storm.

A male Croatian Serb who testified at the ICTY as a protected witness under the codename P-069 was in his house in the village of Zagrovic on August 5 at around 10am when heavy shelling started. The Croatian Army entered the village later that day.

One of the soldiers forced the witness’s 81-year-old neighbour Dmitar Rasuo to go behind his house, and then he heard a burst of automatic gunfire.

At that point there were two others Croatian Serbs at P-069’s house, people who had fled their own homes. When P-069 decided to make his escape into the woods, he advised them to leave with him, but they refused.

P-069 came back to his house a couple of days later, on August 11 or 12, and he found five dead bodies – his neighbour Dmitar Rasuo, another neighbour called Djuro Rasuo, Ilija Petko (born in 1950) and his mother Milica (born in 1923), who were the two displaced people in his house, plus one unidentified body.

The ICTY’s first-instance verdict in the Gotovina, Markac and Cermak trial said that Croatian Army soldiers committed the murders.

According to the verdict, the Croatian Army forces responsible for the area were the Fourth Guards Brigade, known as the Spiders, and the Seventh Guards Brigade, the so-called Pumas. Both of them were part of Operational Group North, one of four operational groups under the umbrella of the Croatian Army’s Split Military District, which was commanded by Ante Gotovina.

On August 2, Gotovina issued an order for an offensive operation, which gave details about the deployments of Croatian armed forces during Operation Storm.

The Fourth Guards Brigade was tasked with mounting an attack in the area where protected witness P-069’s village of Zagrovic is located.

The attack was scheduled to start in the early morning of August 4 and the Fourth Guards Brigade’s log shows it was in Knin and the surrounding areas.

Click to enlargeMilitary log of the Fourth Guards Brigade. Source: ICTY.

Click to enlargeMilitary log of the Fourth Guards Brigade. Source: ICTY.

“Our brigade was deployed this morning at the top of Pljesevica [mountain]… with the task of pushing forward to the foothills at Zagrovic, through Golubic and encircling Knin… Our forces entered Knin at around 10.20am today and we raised a flag at the fortress,” the log says.

The commander of the Fourth Guards Brigade was Damir Krsticevic, who later went on to become Croatia’s defence minister from 2016 to 2020. The commander of the Seventh Guards Brigade was Ivan Korade, who allegedly committed four murders in 2008 and then killed himself.

Both of these brigades were part of the North Operational Group, commanded by Rahim Ademi, which in turn was under the command of Split Military Division commander Ante Gotovina. Ademi was later acquitted of war crimes in another part of Croatia.

When asked by BIRN about the incidents in Zagrovic, the County State’s Attorney’s Office in Sibenik said that it is working on a case involving an unknown perpetrator of a war crime against civilians, and that “joint investigations by police and the state attorney’s office to identify the perpetrators are underway”.
‘They were all Chetniks to me’

Photographs of burning houses presented as prosecution evidence at the ICTY. Photo: ICTY.

Some of the killings in the weeks after Operation Storm, when Croatian forces carried out so-called ‘clean-up’ operations intended to stamp out any remaining Serb resistance, have ended up in court, but very few perpetrators have been convicted.

In 1996, eight people, some of them members of the 15th Home Guard Regiment, which belonged to the Sibenik Operational Group, were tried at Zadar County Court in three separate cases for the killing of 17 elderly civilians in the villages of Varivode, Gosic, and Zrmanja in August and September 1995.

In May 1997, the court issued a combined judgment in the three cases, “since there was an important connection between the co-accused”. But only two soldiers were found guilty – Nikola Rasic and Ivica Petric, both members of 15th Home Guard Regiment.

Click to enlargeVerdict in the trial of Ivica Petric and Nikola Rasic in Croatia in 1997.

Click to enlargeVerdict in the trial of Ivica Petric and Nikola Rasic in Croatia in 1997.

The 15th Home Guard Regiment was commanded by Selimir Vukusic and Tihomir Budanko, who is now the mayor of the Promina municipality in Sibenik-Knin County, very close to where the crimes were committed.

Petric was convicted of the murder of Djurad Canko (born 1915) in Zrmanja in August 1995, and sentenced to six years in prison. Rasic was convicted of attempted robbery and the attempted murder of Jeka Tanjga in Ocestovo in the Knin municipality in August 1995, and sentenced to a year and a half in prison.

In May 1999, the Croatian Supreme Court confirmed the verdicts, but it sent the Varivode and Gosic murder cases back to Zadar County Court for a retrial. However, after a territorial reorganisation of jurisdictions, the case came under the jurisdiction of the Sibenik County Court, which terminated the proceedings in 2002.

A volunteer solder from the same 15th Home Guard Regiment, Veselko Bilic, was also convicted of murder and sentenced to eight years in prison by Sibenik County Court, a sentence which was later reduced to seven-and-a-half years on appeal by the Croatian Supreme Court.

His sentence was reduced by President Franjo Tudjman in 1998, then reduced even further because of good behaviour and health problems. He eventually served three-and-a-half years.

The Bilic case is another that highlights how members of the 15th Home Guard Regiment, commanded by Bandalo and Vukusic, remained deployed in the area weeks after ousting the rebel Serbs during Operation Storm.

On September 7, 1995, Bilic entered the house of Dara Milosevic, a 67-year-old Serb woman, in the village of Pavici in the Skradin municipality, looking for a man who he believed had helped organise the takeover of the Krajina area by the Republic of Serbian Krajina’s armed forces. After Milosevic pushed Bilic and told him to leave the house, he shot her in the head.

Shortly after that, he was apprehended and questioned about the murder twice, by military police and then by civilian police.

“When the military police let me go, I began to consider the possibility that I would be found out, but hoped that the investigation would not be very thorough since the victim was a Serb woman,” Bilic told the local court on October 8, 1995.

While appearing as a witness at the ICTY, Bilic was asked to explain that statement, and said: “I can only repeat that all those [Serbs] who stayed behind in Krajina voted in favour of [by the Republic of Serbian] Krajina, and they were all Chetniks [Serb nationalists] to me. Those aged 18 and above.”

Twenty-five years after the crime, the new Croatian Deputy Prime Minister, Boris Milosevic of the Independent Democratic Serbian Party, revealed that Dara Milosevic was his grandmother.

“On September 7, late in the afternoon, my sister called me. She went with our father to visit our grandmother. They found her dead… The killer was found by chance because of his own bragging, believing that no one would investigate the murder of the ‘Chetnik woman’, as he himself said,” Milosevic wrote on Facebook on August 1.
‘Anti-terror’ operation leaves elderly Serbs dead

Click to enlargeWitness statement given by Milica Karanovic. Source: ICTY.

Court records and testimonies show that crimes were not only committed in areas controlled by the Croatian Army but also in places where Croatian police special forces were deployed, and that killings continued after Operation Storm itself was over on August 7, 1995, when the rebel Serbs were defeated.

During what the Croatian authorities called an “anti-terrorist” operation in the hamlet of Grubori, near Knin on August 25, 1995, special forces killed six elderly Serb civilians, of whom the oldest was around 80. According to his niece’s testimony to the ICTY, she found his body in bed.

“He was in pyjamas and was covered in blood and I don’t know how he died, only that it looked as if he was slaughtered. There was blood on the floor and around the bed,” Milica Karanovic told ICTY investigators.

The ‘anti-terrorist’ operation was meant to secure the passage of a ‘Freedom Train’ from Zagreb to Split via Knin, carrying President Franjo Tudjman, who was giving speeches at various stops along the way to praise the Croatian Army for ‘liberating’ the area during Operation Storm.

In September 2019, the Croatian Supreme Court upheld a verdict acquitting former policemen Frano Drljo and Bozo Krajina of committing a war crime by killing the six elderly Serbs in Grubori.

The men, both former members of the ‘Lucko’ police anti-terrorist unit, were cleared because of a lack of evidence. The court noted that there was a firm vow of silence among members of the Lucko unit, some of whom filed false reports about the operation, including a report about alleged armed resistance by remaining Serb soldiers.

“False reports were written after representatives of the international community learned of the killing of civilians and the burning of houses in the hamlet of G[rubori],” the Croatian court said, stating that the falsifications were intended to “cover up the responsibility of commanders and direct perpetrators”.

Click to enlargeMap of Operation Storm, August 1995. Photo: ICTY.

The court also criticised the role of state institutions, noting that the first witnesses were questioned a long time after the crime.

The Lucko unit was a part of Croatian Police Special Forces, whose commander during Operation Storm was Josip Turkalj, while Josip Celic was assistant commander.

Some of the Lucko unit’s members testified about the Grubari crime at the ICTY trial of Gotovina, Markac and Cermak.

Stjepan Zinic, a specialist training instructor with the unit, testified that on August 25, 1995, the Lucko Unit took part in ‘mopping-up’ operations to provide security for Tudjman’s Freedom Train in the area around Grubari.

Zinic said that the unit was divided into four groups, led by Branko Balunovic, Bozo Krajina, Frano Drljo and himself. Krajina also testified at the ICTY, telling the court that he did not know who killed the elderly civilians and did not want to answer a direct question about whether the Lucko unit killed them.

The commanders of the police special units engaged in these operations were subordinate to Markac, said the ICTY’s first-instance verdict.

The ICTY concluded that after the murders in Grubori, a story was invented that the Croatian anti-terrorist units had clashed with Serb soldiers. Police special forces assistant commander Celic testified that there were no conflicts mentioned in his first report about Grubori, but that Zeljko Sacic, deputy commander of the special police, told him there had been an ‘armed conflict’ and that a new report should be written.

In January 2015, Sacic was indicted for not monitoring, sanctioning and reporting the killings in Grubori. He was also accused of filing a false report to his senior commander, but only a month later, the state attorney’s office withdrew the indictment, saying that it had “significant shortcomings”.

In 2017, the Croatian state attorney’s office told BIRN that it had initiated several thousand criminal cases after Operation Storm. A total 2,380 people were convicted and a total of 14 people – ten of them soldiers – were convicted of murder, although not of committing a war crime.

The Serbian War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office told BIRN that it is working on “various criminal cases” related to crimes committed during Operation Storm, but did not give any more details.

Of all the cases connected to the killings of Serbs during and after Operation Storm, so far only one person has been convicted of committing a war crime under a final verdict – Bozo Bacelic, a former platoon commander with the reconnaissance company of the Croatian Army’s 113th Brigade.

He was found guilty of killing an elderly Serb married couple, and jailed for seven years.

Commanders’ post-war careers and political connections

Damir Krsticevic, commander of the Fourth Guard Brigade, continued his military career. After that, he worked for computer software development companies. In 2016, Krsticevic was appointed defence minister, but resigned in May 2020 after a military training aircraft crashed near the coastal city of Zadar, killing two members of the Croatian Air Force.

Ivan Korade, commander of the Seventh Guard Brigade, who was a civilian before the war, retired in 1997. After his military career ended, he was linked to several criminal acts, including drunk driving and fights. In April 2008, Korade was charged with murders of four people in his home village. He escaped and police held a manhunt for eight days. He was eventually found dead, and officials said he committed suicide.

Tihomir Budanko was commander of the 15th Home Guard Regiment. Croatian media reported in 2011 that, according to survivors, he rescued 14 Serb citizens from the village of Cucevo near Kistanje, who remained in their homes during Operation Storm. He is currently the mayor of the Promina municipality in Sibenik-Knin County.

Rahim Ademi continued his military career after the war but was indicted by the ICTY for crimes in the Medak Pocket area in Croatia in 1993. The ICTY transferred the case to the Croatian judiciary and he was acquitted in 2008. The Supreme Court upheld the acquittal in 2010. At the 2014 presidential elections he was reported to have been a local campaign coordinator for the winning candidate, Ivo Josipovic.

Ivan Vukic continued in the Croatian Army until he retired in 2002. In 2016, he was appointed as the secretary at Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs, a job he still has.

Zeljko Sacic was a deputy commander of the special police during Operation Storm. He has been politically active for some time as a member of the right-wing Croatian Sovereignists party, which joined the right-wing Homeland Movement, led by folk singer Miroslav Skoro, to run in parliamentary elections in July. Sacic won a seat in parliament.

BIRN tried to reach Ivan Vukic and Tihomir Budanko by email, but they did not respond. Damir Krsticevic could not be contacted.

Anja Vladisavljević

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