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Dutch Absolve U.N.Troops in Fall of Srebrenica to Serbs

By William Drozdiak
The Washington Post
THE HAGUE, Netherlands

The Dutch government Monday absolved its U.N. peacekeepers in Bosnia-Herzegovina of any wrongdoing in the fall of Srebrenica to the Bosnian Serbs, which resulted in some of the worst atrocities seen in Europe since World War II. Dutch officials said other nations must share blame for failing to provide enough troops to protect the U.N.-designated "safe area."

Defense Minister Joris Voorhoeve said an intensive three-month investigation showed that the 460 lightly armed Dutch soldiers serving in the Srebrenica enclave in eastern Bosnia last July were overwhelmed by attacking Bosnian Serb forces and thus helpless to prevent the subsequent slaughter of thousands of Muslim men and the forced deportation of 25,000 women, children and elderly.

"The fall of Srebrenica was caused by Bosnian Serb aggression, not by the way in which Dutchbat (the Dutch battalion) operated. The opposing forces were far superior in number and firepower. The small Dutch U.N. unit faced them alone," Voorhoeve told a press conference as he recounted the conclusions of a special military panel.

"Close air support was provided too late and on too small a scale. Dutchbat carried out its U.N. tasks under inordinately difficult and dangerous conditions. But it was powerless, in a way itself a prisoner of the Serbs, even before their attack."

The exoneration seems bound to escalate a debate in a nation that cherishes an altruistic tradition of serving as an enlightened moral conscience and fighting in the vanguard against famine, illiteracy and genocide. On a per-capita basis, the Netherlands donates more than any other nation to Third World development, and it is the leading contributor to U.N. peacekeeping and humanitarian aid missions.

But that heroic image has been badly tarnished by accumulating evidence that Dutch troops stood aside as executions, rapes and expulsions on a massive scale took place last summer in an enclave they were sworn to protect. Public outrage over the failure to thwart such war crimes has been heightened by the appearance of complicity, as Dutch officers served as unwitting dupes and propaganda tools for the Serbs.

In one notorious incident, Ratko Mladic, the military commander of the Bosnian Serbs, summoned the head of the Dutch battalion in Srebrenica, Lt. Col. Ton Karremans, to a room where a live pig was tied up. As Karremans watched in horror with a glass of plum brandy in his hand, a soldier disemboweled the pig with a knife. "That's how we deal with our enemies," Mladic reportedly told him.

When he and his troops were evacuated to Zagreb, Karremans contended that the "militarily correct operation" by the Bosnians Serbs in moving Muslim civilians from their homes was conducted "in the right way." His deputy, Maj. Robert Franken, also signed a document with Mladic asserting that the evacuation was carried out in compliance with legal military norms.

At the time, Lt. Gen. Hans Couzy, the commander of all Dutch ground forces in Bosnia, backed up the claims of his men on the scene and mistakenly insisted that none of his troops had discovered any solid evidence suggesting that Bosnian Serbs had committed acts of genocide in Srebrenica.

While defending the role of the Dutch forces, Voorhoeve said Monday that such statements "were clearly wrong." He said that the Dutch officers never should have permitted themselves to be put in a position, even under such duress, where their words could be exploited by the Serbs.

Even though they were badly outgunned, Dutch soldiers also were castigated for not sticking to demands that Red Cross or other international observers be allowed to accompany the trucks and buses that evacuated refugees from Srebrenica so that Serb actions could be monitored. Other actions by Dutch officers suggested either naivete or a desire to accommodate the Serbs in order to prevent casualties among their own ranks.

Voorhoeve denied reports by human rights groups that Dutch soldiers had destroyed a list of names and a videotape with evidence of war crimes. He said that apart from a few unfortunate comments, there was "no evidence of misdeeds" by any Dutch soldier that would warrant disciplinary action.

"I would compare their situation to that of a man who jumps into the water to save five people from drowning while 100 others watch from the side," he said. "When that man saves two people but three others drown, he gets condemned by those who did nothing for failing to save the three people who went under."