UN tribunal to rule in Vukovar massacre case

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AMSTERDAM, Sep 27 (Reuters) Judges at the UN war crimes tribunal will rule today whether three former Yugoslav army officers were criminally responsible for the massacre of hundreds of people in the Croatian town of Vukovar in 1991.

At least 264 people, mainly Croats who had sought shelter in Vukovar's hospital after the fall of the town, were seized by Serb forces and transported to a farm where they were beaten and shot dead.

Prosecutors have sought life sentences for Mile Mrksic, Miroslav Radic and Veselin Sljivancanin, who are charged with torture, murder and extermination over acts allegedly committed by forces under their command.

The victims were hurriedly buried in a mass grave by a bulldozer.

The accused, known as the ''Vukovar Three'', have pleaded not guilty to eight counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Prosecutors said the men ignored orders that Serb soldiers should not take retribution on the Croats after a three-month siege of Vukovar, Croatia's easternmost town, which lies near the border with Serbia. They then tried to conceal the killings.

Vukovar was once a pretty Danube River port whose 19th century Austro-Hungarian buildings were reduced to bullet-riddled stumps by the ferocious fighting of 1991.

After the town fell, hundreds of people, including the families of hospital staff and some Croatian soldiers, sought refuge in the hospital in the belief they would be evacuated to safety in the presence of international observers.

Instead, local armed Serbs entered the hospital and started abusing and beating patients. In spite of protests by the head of the hospital, soldiers separated the men from the women, taking about 400 people from the facility. They then transported 300 in buses to a farm building in nearby Ovcara.

There, the captives were beaten for several hours and afterwards taken in groups of 10 to 20 to a site close by were at least 264, aged from 16 to 72, were shot.

For most Croats, Vukovar remains a symbol of Croatia's struggle for independence and thousands of ordinary people and officials flock there every November to commemorate the suffering the town endured in autumn 1991.

Reuters KK VP0650

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