OPTINA PRIJEPOLJE, Serbia – Police in Serbia and Bosnia arrested 15 people Friday in a wartime massacre that traumatized the Balkans and came to symbolize a culture of impunity that still shields notorious wartime death squads and their masters.
Prosecutors from Serbia and Bosnia, bitter wartime enemies, told The Associated Press they worked together to crack the case of the Strpci massacre of Feb. 27, 1993, in which 19 men were snatched off a train at the height of the Balkans conflict.
Officers carried out pre-dawn sweeps that netted five in Serbia and 10 in Bosnia, including the brother of a jailed warlord, ex-militia members and a former Bosnian Serb general who commanded the military in the area.
“We are now on the path to solve the murder that has been hidden for more than 20 years,” said Serbian war crimes prosecutor Bruno Vekaric. “We have to do it for the innocent victims.”
There was no comment from the jailed suspects or their lawyers
The question now is whether the suspects will point to the men above them who ordered the killings, investigators say. If so, they could implicate some of Serbia’s top current leaders, who were prominent in the war machine of the president at the time, Slobodan Milosevic. While the Serbian government now acknowledges Strpci as a war crime, the killers are still seen by some in Serbia as war heroes.
“Many war criminals are still influential in business, politics, police and the army,” said Bosnian State Prosecutor Goran Salihovic.
The Associated Press obtained exclusive investigative documents in the probe, which is backed by the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. Together with witness testimony, they provide the first detailed look at a tragedy whose wounds fester even today because the killers were not identified and the victims’ families not compensated.
The Strpci massacre was part of a conflict that left more than 100,000 people dead and millions displaced. Although all sides have been accused of war crimes, historians say Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia carried out the worst atrocities in an effort to create an ethnically pure territory.
Prosecutors have now identified Milan Lukic, one of the most feared Bosnian Serb warlords of the time, as the ringleader of the massacre, which was carefully planned and meticulously executed. Lukic is already serving a life sentence handed down by the U.N. tribunal for separate atrocities against Muslims in Bosnia.
Those arrested in connection with Strpci include his brother Gojko Lukic; former close associate Boban Indjic; several ex-militia members and former Bosnian Serb army Gen. Luka Dragicevic, who commanded the military in the border zone.