Prosecutors have made Serbia’s first arrests of people suspected of the Srebrenica massacre killings.
Serbian police arrested seven men accused of taking part in the slaughter of more than 1,000 Muslims at a warehouse on the outskirts of Srebrenica, a joint team of Serbian and Bosnian prosecutors said.
Altogether, more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed in the eastern Bosnian enclave by the Serbs in 1995 – the only atrocity in Europe to be labelled genocide by the United Nations since the Second World War.
Serbia in the past has put on trial men who took a group of prisoners away from Srebrenica to be killed, and in 2011 it arrested Ratko Mladic – the warlord who masterminded the slaughter – and sent him to an international criminal court in The Hague, Netherlands.
The new arrests are Serbia’s first attempt to bring to justice men who got their hands bloody in the massacre 20 years ago in July.
“It is important to stress that this is the first time that our prosecutor’s office is dealing with the mass killings of civilians and war prisoners in Srebrenica,” said Bruno Vekaric, the lead Serb prosecutor.
He said Serbia was approaching a key moment in confronting its past.
“We have never dealt with a crime of such proportions,” said Mr Vekaric, Serbia’s deputy war crimes prosecutor. “It is very important for Serbia to take a clear position toward Srebrenica through a court process.”
The biggest arrest in the sweep was Nedeljko Milidragovic, the commander dubbed “Nedjo the Butcher”, who went on to become a successful businessman in Serbia.
The collaboration by prosecutors from former wartime enemies Serbia and Bosnia - supported by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague – is the most important case of judicial teamwork helping to heal the wounds of the war.
The arrests follow a December sweep by the same team of prosecutors of 15 suspects in a separate wartime atrocity, a massacre that followed an abduction from a Bosnian train.
Many Serbs still view as heroes their wartime leaders – including Mladic and Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic, who are on trial at the UN war crimes tribunal – and believe they were victims of an elaborate Western plot.
That makes the current campaign to detain the killers deeply sensitive. Serbia’s conservative government is allowing the prosecutions to move forward in part because it is eager to join the European Union.
The prosecutors said they are still searching for more suspects in Serbia and in neighbouring countries.
In July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces opened the Srebrenica offensive with heavy shelling, ignoring Dutch UN peacekeeping troops stationed in the town. The Serbs - led by Mladic – marched into the town without any resistance. Women sought shelter at the Dutch base while men and boys fled into the surrounding woods, to be hunted down by Mladic’s forces.
The men and boys captured by Milidragovic’s men were rounded up and crammed tight into the warehouse with no food or water. The killers then hurled bombs through the windows and fired round after round of automatic gunfire.
Witnesses say that in the morning, Milidragovic ordered the survivors – up to 100 of them – to come out, promising they would be spared. They were not.
When the Bosnian war ended in a peace deal in 1995, Milidragovic moved to the Serbian capital Belgrade. He had two children and built a trucking business that transports construction material. Prosecutors say his start-up capital came from tens of thousands of pounds taken from his victims’ pockets. He is now 58.