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Yugoslavia: Former NATO Commander Clark Testifies In Milosevic Trial

  • Don Hill

Retired U.S. General Wesley Clark testified today in the war crimes trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Clark commanded NATO during its war to halt Serbian forces' campaign of ethnic cleansing targeting Kosovar Albanians in 1999. He also negotiated directly with Milosevic in attempting to head off that war. Clark is extraordinarily well-placed to answer a central question in Milosevic's trial: How much command control did Milosevic exert over Serbian forces in Kosovo?

Prague, 15 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Wesley Clark, a retired four-star U.S. general, commanded NATO in 1999 as it attacked Serbia to compel an end to Serbian forces' campaign of ethnic cleansing aimed at Kosovar Albanians.

Slobodan Milosevic was president of Yugoslavia at the time that Serbian soldiers and militiamen poured into Kosovo and initiated a campaign to force ethnic Albanians to flee their homes there. That campaign, in some instances, included murders, systematic rape, and what amounted to genocidal conduct.

The two men met today in a locked courtroom of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Milosevic is in the dock, charged with war crimes, including genocide. Clark is a witness for the prosecution.

As supreme NATO commander in 1999, Clark knew Milosevic well. He participated in negotiations attempting to persuade Serbia to stop its ethnic-cleansing campaign. He also directed the bombing of Serbian targets that finally did force a halt to the campaign. These contacts made him an unusually well-placed witness with specific information about whether Milosevic directly controlled the forces that committed the crimes with which he is charged.

Whether Milosevic commanded, knew about, or could have prevented the Kosovo atrocities is central to the ICTY prosecution's case against him.

As Clark arrived in the Netherlands yesterday to attend the trial, he described his contacts with Milosevic: "I did spend more than 100 hours, over a period of almost four years, with Milosevic in various positions, both as the J-5 [staff officer for strategic plans and policy] on the Joint Staff, with Ambassador [Richard] Holbrooke on the negotiating team in 1995 that put together the Dayton accords, and, later, as the supreme allied commander in Europe, in dealing with Milosevic and, ultimately, in the war with Yugoslavia over their ethnic cleansing in Kosovo."

Although the substance of Clark's testimony will be made public only several days later, there can be little doubt about his personal views. He laid them out in detail last year in his book "Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo and the Future of Combat." Clark wrote that not only had Milosevic commanded the police, but he also had sought to place his own followers in top positions in the armed forces. On occasion when Serbian leaders balked at Milosevic's orders, Clark said in the book, he "worked around them, skipping echelons in the chain of command to drop down and give specific orders." Milosevic, Clark wrote, was "a supremely manipulative liar and a bully."

Another unusual aspect of Clark's testimony today and tomorrow will be the locks on the courtroom doors. As an international tribunal, the ICTY seeks both to bring war criminals to justice and to demonstrate to the world how an impartial, fully transparent administration of justice can function. In this case, however, the United States allowed Clark to testify only on condition that disclosure of his testimony be delayed. U.S. officials will go over the general's testimony and ask the court to suppress any information they believe would jeopardize U.S. security.

The court agreed to this condition. ICTY spokesman Jim Landale said today that the procedure, though unusual, is provided for in court rules. "General Clark will testify in the Milosevic trial today under what is called Rule 70 in the Trial Rules of Procedure and Evidence," he said. "That allows information providers -- and in this case it's the United States government -- to request certain protective measures if they feel that their national security interest might be jeopardized by certain parts of the testimony being made public."

Landale said also that precedents do exist for applying Rule 70. "This is a provision that's not been used all that often, although it has been requested by other countries and has been granted to those countries as well," he said.

After Clark's testimony, the court will allow U.S. representatives to review his testimony. They may then request a panel of ICTY judges to suppress any information they believe would harm U.S. security interests. The court is free to grant or deny the requests. The ICTY has sound reasons for considering any U.S. requests sympathetically. It expects to negotiate conditions under which other high U.S. officials -- notably Holbrooke -- may be called to testify.

There are at least two other unusual aspects to Clark's court appearance.

One is that he will be subject to cross-examination by Milosevic. The former Yugoslav president is representing himself in this trial and already has demonstrated that he is an able trial lawyer and a fierce cross-examiner. In addition, he has charged repeatedly that the aggressors in the 1999 war were Clark's NATO forces. The Serbs, he says, acted legitimately in self-defense or to protect their rightful interests.

Finally, Clark -- the former warrior -- now is, as Milosevic was, a politician in his own country. Clark is one of the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination to oppose Republican George W. Bush for the U.S. presidency in next year's elections. Any politician would delight in the limelight focused by a highly publicized trial such as that of Slobodan Milosevic.