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Serbia cleared of Bosnian genocide charge - extended

Serbia is not liable for acts of genocide in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica and elsewhere during the three-year civil war, although it did aid ethnic armies who carried out massacres, the International Court of Justice ruled.

Judges at the court in The Hague, also referred to as the International Court of Justice, ruled 13-2 that Serbia was not guilty of genocide, although its leaders failed to prevent massacres during the three year conflict, including in the town of Srebrenica where as many as 8,000 ethnic Bosnian Muslims were killed in 1995. If Serbia had been held liable for the war, it could have cleared the way for Bosnia to sue its neighbor for damages at a time when Serbia is seeking to forge closer trade ties with the European Union and strengthen its economy by selling state assets and attract investment. The ruling „will be a relief to authorities in Belgrade,” said Bear Stearns Managing Director Timothy Ash, in an e-mailed comment. The damages could have exceeded $100 billion „which would obviously have bankrupted the Serbian state. Serbia can now itself begin to move on.” Today's decision, the first time a single country has been held to account for genocide, is one of several related trials stemming from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, including a multiyear war crimes case against former President Slobodan Milosevic, who died in custody in 2006.

„Serbia failed to prevent the genocide of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica,” court President Rosalyn Higgins said in the judgment. However this ruling doesn't make a case in which „an order for payment of compensation” would be „appropriate,” according to the ruling posted on the court's Web site. Bosnia's 1992-1995 civil war shattered the economy and infrastructure, killed tens of thousands and created a million refugees before the Dayton peace agreement partitioned the former Yugoslav republic into two entities, one dominated by ethnic Serbs and the other by Muslims and Croats, in 1995. The country has since been administered by the UN's Office of the High Representative and patrolled by NATO.

The massacre in Srebrenica in July 1995 was genocide, the court ruled today. The crimes „were committed with the specific intent to destroy in part the group of the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina as such,” the ruling said. Montenegro, which gained independence last year, was not considered part of the ruling. Higgins said Serbia alone assumed the „legal identity” for the former Yugoslavia. The ruling is an opportunity for the Serbian government to „distance itself from the crimes committed by the Milosevic regime in the name of the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia,” the German EU Council Presidency said in a statement today. Previous cases in The Hague, also home to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, have centered on acts of war crimes and genocide by individuals in Bosnia, a country of about 4.5 million that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympic Games in the capital Sarajevo before being plunged into Europe's worst conflict since World War II.

Bosnian government lawyers have said the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia led by Milosevic armed, financed and encouraged Bosnian Serbs to conduct an ethnic cleansing campaign that amounted to genocide in an attempt to create the so-called „Greater Serbia.” Serbian lawyers, who have battled the case for almost 15 years, argued that Milosevic and the Serbian army were never directly responsible for the civil war. The court today ruled that there was not sufficient evidence that Serbia had planned the genocidal acts on Bosnian soil. The court also ruled, fourteen to one, Serbia should „immediately take effective steps” to hand over suspects of genocide to the United Nations-administered International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. So far Serbia has violated its international obligations by having failed to transfer Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic and other indicted officials to the tribunal, the court said. Biljana Kovacevic Vuco, a legal expert and human rights activist in Belgrade, said in a phone interview that „the ruling means that Gen. Mladic can now freely take a stroll in downtown Belgrade.” The former Yugoslav People's Army withdrew from Bosnia in the summer of 1992, leaving most of its weapons to Bosnian Serbs. A number of former Yugoslav People's Army officers also remained behind to serve with the Bosnian Serb military. After the collapse of the six-republic Yugoslavia, a special directorate with the former Yugoslav Army's general staff in Belgrade was tasked with accounting and financing the Bosnian Serb military. Ivica Dacic, head of the Socialist party of Serbia once led by Milosevic, said in a phone interview that „ruling means that all the claims about the so-called command responsibility of Serbia and Yugoslavia are meaningless.”

The ruling against Serbia follows the announcement of a plan to separate the disputed province of Kosovo in southern Serbia and give the Albanian majority there near statehood. Serbian politicians have criticized the United Nations plan as violating their sovereignty. Representatives of Serbia and Kosovo, under UN control since the NATO's 1999 bombing campaign drove out the Serb army, are meeting in Vienna this week in an effort to reach a final settlement. Three weeks after January 21 elections, EU foreign ministers said talks on closer trade and economic ties won't resume until a pro-EU government is formed that cooperates with prosecutors looking for fugitive Mladic. (Bloomberg)