Prosecutors on Wednesday made Serbia's first arrests of people suspected of the Srebrenica massacre killings, The Associated Press has learned. It is a milestone in healing the wounds of Europe's worst civilian slaughter since World War II.
Serbian police arrested seven men accused of taking part in the slaughter of over 1,000 Muslims at a warehouse on the outskirts of Srebrenica, a joint team of Serbian and Bosnian prosecutors told the AP. Altogether, over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed in the eastern Bosnian enclave by the Serbs in 1995 — the only atrocity in Europe to be labeled genocide by the United Nations since World War II.
The prosecutors said they were searching for more suspects in Serbia and in neighboring countries.
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 Wednesday's arrests were 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 told The Associated Press.
He said Serbia was approaching a key moment in confronting its past.
"We have never dealt with a crime of such proportions," said 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 AP has learned.
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 festering 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 triggermen deeply sensitive. Serbia's conservative government is allowing the prosecutions to move forward in part because it's eager to join the European Union.