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TUE, 25 SEP 2001 18:14:15 GMT

America's Role in Operation Storm

AIM Zagreb, September 9, 2001

Since renowned U.S. journalist Roy Gutman published a report in Newsweek magazine several weeks ago proving that the U.S. and its intelligence services had actively participated in the 1995 Operation Storm, in which the Croatian army conquered the Republic of Serb Krajina, the matter has been in the media spotlight. The issue is more important because Gutman is not merely dealing with facts pertaining to the war in the former Yugoslavia, nor is his aim solely to shed light on less known details of the recent history of the region.

He linked his article to events going on at the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), criticizing the court for not using all available data and sources in the trial of Croatian army general Ante Gotovina, who was indicted this summer. Gutman said the tribunal's activities are increasingly politically motivated, and was equally critical, even cynical, about the U.S. He claims that U.S. intelligence, by being present in Croatia at that time, must have registered war crimes committed during and after the operation, and that if it had not, then no crimes had been committed.

Gutman thus opened an almost academic debate, probably aimed at resolving certain internal issues in the U.S., because evidence on the crimes is more than obvious: bodies of executed Serb civilians. The evidence has been gathered by various humanitarian organizations, and they have certainly informed the Croatian authorities of their findings. American officials could have easily referred Gutman to them. But they seem to have been so taken by surprise by his article, that some of them, although unnamed, recognized their participation in Operation Storm, denying only that they had anything to do with the crimes committed at the time.

The situation has now changed. Gutman's article is no longer a surprise, and U.S. officials are again staying silent or denying everything. U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Lawrence Rossin gave an interview to several Croatian journalists in which he firmly denied "any participation by the U.S. in Operation Storm." Lawrence was also unwilling to openly confirm that the U.S. knew of preparations for the operation. Instead, he said America was "aware of them," although his predecessor, Peter Galbraith, openly admitted he spoke about it with Franjo Tudjman on the island of Brioni.

This admission was lost somewhere along the way and Rossin now describes U.S.-Croatian relations as "normal," placing stress on the U.S. political engagement in the region ("Not only were we uninvolved, but before the operation, through our diplomatic representatives, we even exerted constant pressure on all sides -- the Croatian authorities, the government in Belgrade, and the leaders of the so-called Serb Krajina -- to resolve all problems through negotiations, and not by force of arms.") According to Rossin, there was no other engagement, which is far from what everyone in Croatia knows quite well.

This is why journalists reminded the U.S. ambassador of statements by some Croatian officials, saying that the U.S. had navigation equipment in Sepurine military base for controlling drones.

Ambassador Rossin's answer was diplomatic: "Our general principle is not to comment on intelligence matters," which ended the debate on this particular issue. In other words, the U.S. will not discuss the activities of its intelligence services in Croatia, not even, some believe, if summoned by the ICTY to testify.

The U.S. diplomat, of course, did not say that openly, but vaguely replied that ICTY summons, if sent, will be "considered," and that officials will decide their "relevance." This position is quite similar to that of the fugitive general, Ante Gotovina: having concluded that the indictment against him is groundless and unpleasant, he decided to escape. But the international police and judicial bodies, believing it was not up to him to assess the "relevancy" of the indictment, several days ago issued an international warrant for his arrest.

True, Rossin said he was not competent to speak about relations between the U.S. and the Hague court, saying he lacked information, and that whatever said would border on speculation.

But he was very specific when the participation of the U.S. in Operation Storm was in question. He firmly said there was no such participation, regardless of "individual obligations taken by individuals." Low and behold! he has declared the U.S. engagement in the region as nothing more than the private business of certain American individuals, making it possible to view the statement by former ambassador Galbraith as one such "private initiative" as well. This rash and clumsy distancing from everything that has to do with Operation Storm, even from individual people, must have been caused by important reasons. And these reasons are quite clear.

As of recently the Croatian Democratic Union and other parties close to it, as well as various veterans' associations and services, have been trying to prove that the U.S. was an equal partner in Operation Storm, even its chief architect. Until a while ago this was considered heretical, because Operation Storm was supposed to be "the greatest military victory in Croatian history," and dividing the credit with any foreign army was out of the question. This romantic enthusiasm is now gone. Many believe that the Croatian Democratic Union is trying to blame America for the events of the mid-1990s in order to improve the position of Gotovina and Ademi, the only Croatian ICTY indictees so far, but not likely to retain that title much longer.

Many were convinced that America would respond nervously, even furiously to the campaign launched by the Croatian Democratic Union and that some form of retribution could not be ruled out. The latter has not happened yet, and the U.S. ambassador has angrily denied any partnership between his country and Croatia in 1995. He did this despite widespread belief that the partnership actually existed, maybe because this change of heart does not involve only Croatia and the Croatian-Serbian war of the mid-1990s.

After the Albanian uprising in Macedonia, the entire U.S. involvement in the region of former Yugoslavia has been place under scrutiny. The U.S. engagement was most questionable in Croatia and, probably, in Macedonia -- both regions where there were bilateral agreements inaccessible to the public. Other agreements, which included the entire international community, and which were public, such as the Dayton agreement, are less disputed. The engagement in Yugoslavia and in Kosovo is somewhere in between -- it was preceded by an international agreement in France, but probably included some secret arrangements as well, which one day, like Operation Storm, will surface.

Marinko Culic

(AIM)