In A first for Serbia, police yesterday arrested eight men accused of taking part in killing more than 1,000 Bosnian Muslims in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
The move could be a significant milestone toward healing the wounds of Europe’s worst slaughter of civilians since the Second World War.
Chief Serbian war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic said that all those arrested “are former members of a special brigade of the Bosnian Serb police”.
The massacre took place at a warehouse on the outskirts of Srebrenica, a team of Serbian and Bosnian prosecutors said. Altogether, more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed in the enclave by the Serbs in 1995, the only atrocity in Europe to be labelled genocide by the United Nations since the Second World War.
Serbian prosecutors initially arrested seven suspects in pre-dawn raids yesterday at different locations in Serbia, then caught the eighth suspect later in the day after a manhunt. The prosecutors said they are still searching for more suspects in Serbia and in neighbouring countries.
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.
More than 100,000 people were killed and millions left homeless in Bosnia’s 1992-95 war when Bosnian Serbs, supported by neighbouring Serbia, rebelled against Bosnia’s declaration of independence from Serb-led Yugoslavia.
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.
But yesterday’s arrests are Serbia’s first attempt to bring to justice men who got their hands bloody in the killing machine known as the Srebrenica massacre 20 years ago this 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,” Bruno Vekaric, the lead Serb prosecutor in the case, said.
The collaboration yesterday by prosecutors from former wartime enemies Serbia and Bosnia, supported by the UN war crimes tribunal – is the most important case of judicial teamwork helping to heal the war’s festering wounds.
Mr Vekaric said Serbia was approaching a key moment in confronting its past. He added: “We have never dealt with a crime of such proportions.
“It is very important for Serbia to take a clear position toward Srebrenica through a court process.”
Munira Subasic, head the Mothers of Srebrenica group, called the arrests “good news.”
“It was time for Serbia to do something,” she said. “This is a message to all criminals who fled and thought they are safe from justice that they can never rest.”
Ejup Ganic, the wartime deputy president of Bosnia and now a university dean, said at least 850 Bosnian Serbs took part in the Srebrenica massacre, of which nearly 150 are believed to be living in the United States, while the rest are in Serbia.
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.