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Operation Little Flower:

The United Nations' Apprehension of an Indicted War Criminal

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United Nations, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), or the U.S. Government.

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FOREWORD

by Ambassador Jacques Paul Klein

One of the most personally rewarding accomplishments of my tour as the United Nations Transitional Administrator for Eastern Slavonia (UNTAES), Baranja, and Western Sirmium was the planning and accomplishment of the first apprehension of an indicted war criminal in the UNTAES. Having exhumed (in conjunction with ICTY) the war crimes site at Ovcara where 260 wounded military and civilian personnel from the Vukovar Hospital were murdered and buried, it was gratifying to apprehend at least one of the principal perpetrators indicted for this crime against humanity and transport him to The Hague.

Our principal concern in planning the operation was for the safety and welfare of the 700 U.N. personnel residing on the economy or living in Serb homes. We had to factor in this security issue throughout the planning phase. However, my faith in my planning cell and soldiers was confirmed. The superb operational planning capabilities of my staff, the repeated rehearsals, and the flawless execution of the operation by UNTAES military personnel demonstrated such a remarkably high level of professionalism that it ensured success and minimized any possible threats of violence.

The operation went far to dispel the notion that war criminals could not be apprehended and that the International Community did not have the resolve to do so. We succeeded and other arrests have followed. Our failure to act would have been unconscionable and would have put into doubt the very reason for our presence in the former Republic of Yugoslavia. This was the most difficult war of all: a war between neighbors and friends, a war between people who had lived together in a functioning community. We know that the physical wounds of war often heal faster than the psychological ones. Bringing to justice those who perpetrated such heinous crimes will go far to heal the psychological wounds as well.

Ambassador Jacques Paul Klein is a career diplomat and U.S. Air Force Reserve Major General. He was the United Nations Transitional Administrator, Eastern Slavonia, until August 1997. He currently serves as the Deputy High Representative for the Office of the High Representative (OHR) in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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by Maj David Sterling Jones, USA, and Cpt Paul J. McDowell, USAF

I welcome the news that Slavko Dokmanovic, an indicted war criminal, has been apprehended by investigators for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), working with the U.N. Transitional Administration in Eastern Slavonia (UNTAES). I congratulate the ICTY and UNTAES on their successful apprehension. The United States continues to support fully the work of the Tribunal to bring indicted war criminals to justice.

--Statement by President Bill Clinton, The White House, 27 June 1997

On 27 June 1997, UNTAES troops and members of the ICTY1 apprehended Slavko Dokmanovic, a Croatian Serb and former mayor of Vukovar, Croatia, who was charged in a sealed indictment with war crimes. This was the first time a mission of this type used armed troops to apprehend an individual under indictment by the War Crimes Tribunal. As demonstrated 13 days later in Prijedor, Bosnia-Herzegovina, when British Stabilization Force (SFOR) troops moved against local indicted war criminals, the United Nations and the SFOR signaled a new determination to bring suspected war criminals to justice. After 18 months of inaction, the sudden change in course would have far-reaching and potentially hazardous implications on U.N. and SFOR operations in the former Republic of Yugoslavia. This article will discuss the background, planning, and execution of the first successful arrest operation mounted in the former Yugoslavia: Operation LITTLE FLOWER.

Setting the Scene

The origins of Operation LITTLE FLOWER can be traced to the opening days of the conflict in Fall 1991. As Croatia slid into the abyss of civil war, Europe was faced with the inhumanities of mass murder, rape, and wholesale destruction not seen since the Second World War. The outbreak of war was to be followed by years of failed attempts at bringing peace to the war-torn region. In the closing months of 1995, the United Nations, in conjunction with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, would take a more resolute stand in the pursuit of peace. The first step was the signing of the Dayton Accords in Dayton, Ohio, leading to the December creation of the Implementation Force (IFOR). This was followed at Erdut, Croatia, with the signing of the Erdut agreement, which led to the creation of the UNTAES. In January 1996, the United Nations Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia (UNTAES) was established as a final act in the peaceful restoration of Croatian sovereignty over territory lost in Fall 1991. Three years earlier, the United Nations had established the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) located in The Hague, Netherlands, in response to the horrific war crimes which were surfacing out of the bloodbath of the former Yugoslavia. UNTAES and ICTY would be brought together in the opening days of 1997 by a mass grave outside of Vukovar, Croatia. The grave contained the bodies of 260 murdered prisoners of war, and the organizations shared a common belief that such horrors should be punished.

The Battle for Vukovar

The location of this event greatly belies its peaceful setting. It is region of Croatia lying on the banks of the Danube (Dunav) River--that marks the border between the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and the Republic of Croatia, Eastern Slavonia-- that is rich in both agriculture and oil. The region has a long history of mixed ethnic communities made up of Croats, Serbs, Hungarians, and others. This area, historically known for its fertile farmlands, abundant wildlife and vineyards, became known for something far more sinister. It would soon become the focal point of some of the most brutal fighting in the breakup of Yugoslavia.

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Destroyed St. Phillip and Jacob Church in Vukovar.

The Republic of Croatia declared its independence on 25 June 1991 after conducting a referendum on 19 May regarding Croatia's future in the Yugoslav Federation. Pressure from the European Community persuaded Croatia to delay the effective date of its independence until 8 October 1991.

Shortly after the June declaration of independence, Serbs living within the borders of Croatia intensified their armed insurrection against the Croatian government in an effort to carve out the historically Serb regions. In the middle of this struggle stood the Yugoslav Peoples Army (JNA), led primarily by a Serb-dominated officer corps. From the start of hostilities, the JNA would intervene in support of the Croatian Serb cause.

In what became an 86-day battle for Eastern Slavonia, by late August, the JNA and Serb paramilitary forces overran much of Eastern Slavonia where they occupied and laid waste to most non-Serb villages in the region. They then laid siege to the city of Vukovar, one of the first of many cities in the former Yugoslavia to suffer under a sustained artillery assault. The onslaught killed hundreds of civilians and soldiers and destroyed most of the city. From August through November, a Croatian garrison of never more than 2,500 National Guardsmen stood against a combined JNA and Serb paramilitary force of more than 30,000 troops with tanks, artillery, and aircraft. Finally, on 18 November 1991, the combined Serb forces overran the few remaining pockets of Croat defenders and occupied the remains of the city.

The Battle's Aftermath

The tragedy of Vukovar did not end with the fall of the city. During the last few days of the siege, several hundred people took refuge in the city hospital in Vukovar in the hope that it would be evacuated in the presence of international observers. An evacuation had been agreed upon during negotiations between the JNA and the Croatian government on 18 November in Zagreb.

The day after the surrender, JNA troops took control of the Vukovar hospital and the hundreds of sick and wounded civilians, soldiers, hospital staff, and family members there. Also counted among the numbers were Croatian soldiers seeking refuge among the wounded or acting as hospital staff members. Throughout the day, Serb paramilitary soldiers removed more than 400 men from the hospital. The JNA loaded about 300 of these men on buses and trucks and move them to a federal Army barracks on the south side of the city.

During the two hours that the buses were at the barracks, about 15 men were ordered released by JNA officers because they were hospital staff mistakenly picked up. The remaining men were then driven to Ovcara Farm approximately four kilometers south of Vukovar. The beatings began from the moment that they stepped off the buses at Ovcara and continued for several hours, resulting in the deaths of at least two men. At one point, the JNA troops intervened and secured the release of seven men who were taken back to Vukovar.

On the evening of 20 November, the remaining men were removed from the building at Ovcara Farm. According to ICTY documents, soldiers divided the men into groups of ten to twenty. The trucks headed down a small dirt road a short distance from the building, between a cultivated field and a wooded area. When the trucks reached a prepared site, soldiers removed the prisoners, lined them up, and shot them. After killing approximately 260 men in the course of the evening, soldiers used a bulldozer to bury their victims in a mass grave.

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UNTAES and ICTY personnel supervise excavation of mass grave.

Of the 300 men removed from the Vukovar Hospital, 260 remained missing. For their role in the fall of Vukovar and the massacre at Ovcara Farm, three JNA officers were later indicted by the ICTY. On 26 March 1996, for his role in the massacre, the Mayor of Vukovar, Slavko Dokmanovic was added under a sealed indictment.

The First Attempt

Article 21. UNTAES shall cooperate with the International Tribunal in the performance of its mandate, including with regard to the protection of sites identified by the Prosecutor and persons conducting investigations for the International Tribunal.

--U.N. Resolution 1037, 15 January 1996

In early January 1997, ICTY Team 4 investigators traveled to the UNTAES Headquarters in Vukovar to discuss developing a plan for the arrest of Slavko Dokmanovic. The Transitional Administrator, Jacques Paul Klein, authorized the UNTAES staff to conduct planning with the ICTY to enable the mission to respond to any future requests for assistance should an indicted war criminal be identified in the region.

As the end of January 1997 neared, ICTY identified an opportunity to make an arrest. Planning was still in its early stages at this point, and the Force Commander of UNTAES, Major General Willy Hanset of Belgium, was far from comfortable with the serious lack of critical information about the suspect. A number of questions remained unanswered. Those involved in planning this operation had little knowledge of the individual's willingness or training to resist, what type of personal protection force he had, or even what support he still had inside the UNTAES region. There was, however, a greater difficulty facing mission planners: how to bring together a force made up of multiple elements without compromising the mission. The force included contingents from Belgium, Ukraine, Poland, Pakistan, Russia, as well as elements of the Transitional Police Force (TPF), the United Nations Civilian Police (UNCIVPOL), and other UNTAES elements.

At the same time, UNTAES had to ensure that all participants, no matter how small their roles, were aware of how the mission may affect their troops. As the planned date for the detention and arrest of the suspect neared, it became clear that the current force structure was too unwieldy to be effective and to maintain the necessary degree of operational security. To maintain operational effectiveness and minimize the chances of mission compromise, the mission planners would need to pare down to a minimum the number of languages and organizations in the UNTAES arrest force. In addition to these problems, it was clear that there was no chance to conduct a rehearsal of the operation with all of the participating troops. If the mission proceeded, it would be "on the fly."

With some degree of relief, mission planners received word from ICTY investigators a mere 24 hours before execution of the operation that the mission was canceled because the suspect was not going to show as planned. The pressure was off. With many individuals believing that the suspect was aware that he was under indictment and wanted by The Hague, most of the UNTAES planners felt that such matters were best left to others outside of UNTAES. Believing that the matter was over, those involved in the operation shelved the plan and hoped for another chance under better conditions.

Build A Better Trap

Having identified a number of serious flaws in the planning capabilities for an arrest mission, the Transitional Administrator directed a small group of UNTAES planners to prepare a force package from the available troops in the mission. In the future, the force package could be quickly activated to execute the detention and arrest of war crimes suspects. With clear guidance from the Transitional Administrator, serious planning commenced two months later, making use of only one contingent from UNTAES. By May, the ICTY felt that another opportunity was nearing. Accordingly, an UNTAES representative flew to The Hague in The Netherlands to lay out the parameters for any future arrest attempts to be conducted in the UNTAES region. After a day of discussions about operational possibilities, the new planning group decided on a basic concept for the operation and set a target date. Within two weeks of the meeting in The Hague, the group laid a base operation plan on the desk of the contingent commander whose troops would play the greatest role in the execution of the mission. The next four weeks gave the commander time to refine the plan and prepare his troops.

A New Window of Opportunity

As the target date approached, preparations intensified. The planners and forces involved felt that this time the mission was well prepared and would be successful. At this point, all the planners and operators needed was for Slavko Dokmanovic to be as predictable as ICTY had claimed he would be. On 23 June, the final rehearsals were conducted with all UNTAES and ICTY participants taking part. The rehearsals covered the actual area in which the operation would be executed although they had to remain out of the sight of the local populace. The plan received final approval from the Transitional Administrator who, at the time, was at U.N. Headquarters in New York, where he had successfully cleared the mission with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and the U.N. legal authorities.

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The planning group then arranged to transport the suspect, once arrested, from Croatia to The Hague. To accomplish this, the UNTAES Air Cell positioned a six-passenger executive class aircraft at Cepin Airfield just outside the UNTAES region. If all worked as planned, the aircraft would transport both the ICTY team and the suspect out of the region within minutes of the takedown.

As often happens with the best laid plans, the target did not cooperate. For three days, the surveillance teams dug in at border crossings while the detention and arrest team waited anxiously for the suspect to enter the region. By 25 June, it was clear that Dokmanovic would require an additional incentive to enter the UNTAES region.

Late on the 25th, the ICTY and UNTAES developed an alternate course of action which would ensure that Dokmanovic would feel comfortable crossing over from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) into the UNTAES administered region of Croatia. Dokmanovic still owned a house in the region and the issue of compensation for the property greatly concerned him. Dokmanovic had also expressed a worry that Croatian authorities were eager to apprehend him. It became clear to the LITTLE FLOWER planning team that if Dokmanovic was going to travel in the UNTAES region and conduct any type of business, it must occur before 15 July when Croatian authorities would begin reasserting authority over the region.

Investigators from the ICTY had gained Dokmanovic's confidence by conducting interviews at his home in Sombor, FRY, over the previous days under the guise of investigating Croatian war crimes of which Dokmanovic had knowledge. The interviews served to build confidence between Dokmanovic and the agents and reinforce the idea that he was not wanted by the ICTY and that he had nothing to fear from ICTY or UNTAES.

Knowing that Dokmanovic was eager to make contact with UNTAES representatives about property issues and having his full confidence that neither UNTAES nor ICTY wanted him, investigators offered to arrange a meeting between Dokmanovic and UNTAES. The UNTAES quickly approved the change in plan and laid the groundwork for Dokmanovic to enter the UNTAES region under the guise of meeting with UNTAES officials. The final act of gaining his full cooperation was providing a U.N. vehicle at the border to transport him to the meeting.

The Arrest

In preparation for the suspect's arrest, the LITTLE FLOWER planners established a protocol to guarantee a smooth, speedy, and safe transfer of the suspect from UNTAES authorities to ICTY officers and then on to The Hague. ICTY would provide a voice recording of the reading of the suspect's rights and charges, and would maintain a recording capability until the suspect was handed over to Dutch authorities in The Hague. It was also important that video and still shots be made for documentation purposes; UNTAES would provide that capability. Before the suspect would be able to leave the UNTAES area of operations (AO) and control, the planners agreed that Dokmanovic should be given a medical examination. This would serve two purposes. First, it would insure the suspect had not been harmed during the detention and arrest. More importantly, it would verify he was capable of making the trip to The Hague without having medical problems enroute. The last detail to be ironed out was that of coordinating the press releases and other administrative matters between UNTAES and ICTY. These measures proved invaluable during the hectic hours following the arrest.

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Slavko Dokmanovic arrested by UNTAES troops on 27 June 1997.

At 1455 hrs on 27 June 1997, Slavko Dokmanovic entered Eastern Slavonia in a U.N. vehicle driven by specially trained UNTAES soldiers. A short distance after crossing the Dunav River, as planned, the vehicle abruptly departed from the road into a secure area; then the UNTAES force seized Dokmanovic. The speed and violence of the maneuver prevented Dokmanovic from removing a loaded .357 Magnum pistol from his brief case. The UNTAES soldiers detained Dokmanovic as a wanted war criminal under indictment by the International War Crimes Tribunal. Within minutes of this detention, ICTY agents stepped from the shadows and placed Dokmanovic under arrest. Translators read him both his rights and the charges against him. Within twenty minutes of his entry into the UNTAES, Dokmanovic was again moving, but this time under arrest and secured in a convoy of well-armed U.N. vehicles.

Upon his arrival at Cepin, UNTAES forces prepared Dokmanovic for the flight to The Netherlands. At this point, however, medical personnel determined that Dokmanovic's heart was exhibiting dangerous, irregular heartbeats. He was accordingly provided medication to help bring his heart rate under control. This discovery, and the resulting medical attention, cost twenty vital minutes at the airfield. It was a setback in time, but it ensured that a living, healthy suspect, not a heart attack or stroke victim, reached The Hague. Just over an hour and ten minutes after entering Eastern Slavonia, Dokmanovic was "wheels up" enroute to a Dutch military airbase in The Netherlands. The United Nations had crossed the war criminals' Rubicon.

Post Operations

With the departure of the aircraft bearing Dokmanovic from Cepin Airfield, a prearranged three-hour blackout on news of the arrest took effect. The intent of the blackout was to enable both UNTAES and ICTY to finalize press releases, upgrade security postures within the mission AO, and get the word out to other peopled involved in the mission. The Transitional Administrator--who had been airborne in an Mi-8 helicopter in the vicinity of Cepin Airfield in the event that serious problems developed and his intervention was necessary--returned to the Vukovar headquarters after Dokmanovic's departure from Cepin. On his return to headquarters, Mr. Klein initiated a prioritized list of telephone numbers to start the notification process to senior United Nations and national government officials.

While Slavko Dokmanovic pondered his future in Scheveningen Prison in The Hague, British SFOR troops moved in to arrest two Bosnian Serb war crimes suspects also under sealed indictment in Prijedor on 10 July 1997. Milan "Mico" Kovacevic was taken without incident. Simo Drijaca was killed in an exchange of gunfire that left one British soldier wounded. Within days, tensions escalated across Bosnia as suspected war criminals and supporters prepared for possible additional arrests. For months, the speculation of further apprehensions being planned circulated in the international media prompting the SFOR--contributing nations to dispel these rumors. Meanwhile, back in Eastern Slavonia, a significant number of Serb hard-liners, who feared their names might also be on sealed indictments, quietly left the region.

Conclusion

From a planning and operations perspective, many lessons can be learned from Operation LITTLE FLOWER. As stated earlier, many other hard-liners--with possible guilty consciences--left the area following the arrest. For purposes of peaceful integration of Eastern Slavonia, this was a positive side effect. In future operations of a similar nature where more than one suspect may be under surveillance, this result should be considered in the planning process.

Other lessons learned were equally important. These included the--

  • Need to minimize the number of people involved in the planning and execution phases of the operation.
  • Necessity to rehearse the operation in an environment that resembles the evnironment of the real operation.
  • Requirement for clear command and control throughout the operation.
  • Foresight to have qualified medical personnel on hand.
  • Ability to provide rearguard security immediately after the operation and subsequently to protect against possible retribution.

Beyond serving as a template for future operations to apprehend war criminals and to serve notice to the guilty, LITTLE FLOWER did much more. Clearly, the presence of suspected war criminals living freely in the former Republic of Yugoslavia serves only to undermine the fragile peace that is currently in place. Operation LITTLE FLOWER demonstrated a dedicated willingness, despite the risks, to make an effort toward a lasting and just peace in the region.

Endnote

1. For further information on the UNTAES mission, see "UNTAES: A Story in the former Yugoslavia," in the January-March 1998 Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin, or http://www.un.org./Depts/DPKO/ c_miss/.htm on the Internet. Further information on the ICTY and Slavko Dokmanovic can be found at http://www.un.org/icty/.

Major Jones is the S2, 1st Brigade, 3d Infantry Division. As an artillery officer, he served with the 1st Armored Division as a Battalion Fire Support Officer during Operation DESERT STORM and later as the the Division Artillery S2. MAJ Jones has served as an armored battalion S2 and as a company commander in the 2d Infantry Division. While serving as a Task Force S2 Observer/Controller at the CMTC, he attended the U.N. Military Observer and Staff Officer courses in Finland and Ireland (see page 52). MAJ Jones served as the Special Assistant to the Transitional Administrator for UNTAES from January through July 1997. He was a distinguished graduate of the Johns Hopkins University ROTC program. Readers can contact the author via E-mail at [email protected] wart.army.mil and telephonically at (912) 767-7031 and DSN 870-7031.

Captain McDowell, U.S. Air Force, is currently a Balkans Analyst at United States European Command, Stuttgart, Germany. He served as an analyst at the U.S. Naval Intelligence Center [should be: National Intelligence Cell] (USNIC), Sarajevo, and as the Special Assistant to the Transitional Administrator for UNTAES from October 1996 through January 1997. During Operation DESERT STORM, Captain McDowell served as the wing intelligence officer for the 552d Wing, Riyadh Air Base (AB), Saudi Arabia. He then moved on to help establish Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) operations at Incirlik AB, Turkey, as part of Operation PROVIDE COMFORT I. CPT McDowell graduated from University of Texas at Arlington with a masters degree in European History. He is also a graduate of the Joint Military Intelligence College's Post-Graduate Intelligence Program and earned a Master of Science in Strategic Intelligence. Interested readers can reach him via E-mail [email protected] or telephonically at DSN 430-4427.