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Croat Officials Say 43 Killed By Serb Troops With AM-Yugoslavia

December 19, 1991

VOCIN, Yugoslavia (AP) _ By a daring escape into the woods where he made his living, Croatian Victor Supan survived the occupation of his village. But Croatian officials and survivors say at least 43 other villagers were not so lucky.

Croatian military commanders and survivors claimed Thursday that retreating Serb irregular forces massacred Croatian civilians, many of them elderly, burning and mutilating the bodies and leaving the once-picturesque eastern town of Vocin a smoldering shell.

The church in the center of town, which officials acknowledged had been used to store ammunition, was blown up and rubble strewn about the streets from the blast. Only one section remained standing.

Much of the center of town was wrecked - the police command, a gas station, a hotel, a bank and a hospital were all destroyed.

The brutality of Yugoslavia’s brutal 6-month-old war is frequently highlighted by allegations of atrocities from both sides - usually impossible to verify.

Newspapers in Belgrade and military investigators have said up to 120 Serbs were massacred by advancing Croats in the same area and many villages leveled. But the same newspapers, the pro-Serbian government Politika and Politika Ekspres, later said without elaboration that the figure of 120 probably was too high.

The killings in and near Vocin apparently came over the weekend, as Serb- led forces were in retreat. Local defense commander Stevo Gojmerac described what Croatian forces found when they entered Vocin, which had been occupied for months.

″When we entered the village we found corpses everywhere,″ he said by telephone on Thursday. ″We had to look for surviving villagers in the woods, because they were afraid that Chetniks (Serb irregulars) had entered the village.″

Vocin, a village of about 1,500 people about 90 miles east of Zagreb, was about two-thirds ethnic Serb. But officials said virtually all the dead were Croats.

Serb civilians who fled Vocin for the neighboring Bosnian republic, who refused to be identified, claimed that Croats who had been killed in the town had been shot by firing squads for collaborating with Croatian forces.

Witnesses, however, said the bodies bore marks of mutilation. Ivan Bacura, the chief of the hospital in Podravska Slatina, 20 miles northeast of Vocin, entered the town Monday. He said by telephone that the sight attested to ″unlimited imagination of how to find that many ways to kill a man.″

″There were bullet and stab wounds, one man was found as an amorphous heap of ashes - it didn’t at all remind one of a man,″ he said.

Supan, the 58-year-old forester, said during the occupation that Croats who remained behind were required to work at hard labor in order to be fed. Last week, he said, the Croats heard that the occupiers would kill many people before they retreated.

He and several others related how they fled.

They said a Serb insurgent with an automatic weapon forced them to stay in their house, and that they could see others going house to house, killing Croats.

Their opportunity came when they were able to get their captor drunk on brandy. Supan slipped outside, picked up a rock, and hit the man over the head.

Then he, his 30-year-old son Zoran and 37-year-old Peter Caric grabbed tins of jam, rescued two old women and two young girls, and fled into the frigid woods, they said. They slept outside, under the trees.

Supan said another son, 32-year-old Vlado, was one of four people killed by the occupiers on Dec. 7 after being forced to transport munitions from the church to another site.

But the animosities went both ways. In the village of Meljani, 12 miles from Vocin, this photographer saw Croatian guardsmen harassing two Serbs and threatening to kill at least one of them. Eventually, the guardsmen were ordered by their commander to stop.

Gojmerac said in a telephone interview from Zagreb that by Wednesday, 43 bodies had been found but that authorities were still searching for others. Funerals for the 43 were held Wednesday in Podravska Slatina.

One of Gojmerac’s deputies, Damir Sarabog, said the 42 bodies identified so far were all of Croats. The one body not identified was found tied to a plum tree, half-charred and mutilated so that identification was impossible, Gojmerac said.

Four people were killed in the nearby village of Hum, three in nearby Pokane and four in Krasovec, another hamlet close to Vocin, Gojmerac said. The rest were from Vocin, he said, adding most were old people.

In Zagreb, Renilde Steeghs, an EC spokeswoman, said the EC team entering Vocin saw a grave with 24 bodies, most of them of elderly people.

At a news conference in Zagreb on Tuesday, Croatian Information Minister Branko Salaj said he believed the Yugoslav federal army was involved in the killings in and around Vocin.

Salaj showed what he said were federal army jackets, weapons and ammunition to support his claim that the army was involved. He charged that the Serb-led army as well as Serb irregulars were responsible for the killings, but said he did not know the extent of army involvement.

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