Former Yugoslav army officer pleads not guilty to Croatia charges

Thursday, May 16th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) _ A former Yugoslav army officer pleaded innocent Thursday to charges that his troops executed at least 200 Croat hospital patients in 1991 in the city of Vukovar during the Croatian war.

Retired Gen. Mile Mrksic, 55, surrendered to the U.N. war crimes tribunal on Wednesday along with former Croatian Serb rebel leader Milan Martic, who will make his first appearance in court next Tuesday.

Mrksic pleaded ``not guilty'' to all six counts in his indictment. If found guilty, he could be sentenced to life imprisonment.

Mrksic commanded a Yugoslav army unit that besieged and relentlessly shelled the eastern city of Vukovar for several months in 1991, reducing it to ruins. He later commanded Croatian Serb troops under Martic, who is charged with a rocket attack against the Croatian capital of Zagreb in 1995 that killed at least five people and injured dozens.

The indictment against Mrksic alleges that his troops removed at least 200 non-Serbs from the Vukovar hospital in November 1991 and transported them to a nearby pig farm, where most of them were shot and buried in a mass grave.

Mrksic is one of the so-called ``Vukovar trio'' who have been indicted on the same charge. The other two former Yugoslav army officers _ Miroslav Radic and Veselin Sljivancanin _ are still free and have rejected a Yugoslav government demand to surrender to the U.N. tribunal.

During the court appearance, Mrksic's lawyer, Miroslav Vasic, said he would request his client's ``provisional release'' until his trial begins because he recently had two heart operations.

German judge Wolfgang Shomburg said the decision on Mrksic's release from the U.N. detention unit would be made after doctors rule on his health.

Both Mrksic and Martic were close to former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in the first years of the 1991-1995 Croatian Serb rebellion. Milosevic is now being tried by the tribunal for alleged war crimes committed by Serb forces in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

On Thursday, Milosevic continued to cross-examine Ratomir Tanic _ the first of several Serbian political insiders to appear before the court. Tanic has testified that Milosevic masterminded an ``ethnic cleansing'' campaign in Kosovo in 1999, during which about 800,000 ethnic Albanians were driven out of the province by Serb forces and thousands were killed.