Croatia's Top War Crimes Suspect Dario Kordic and 9 others plead Innocent to Atrocity chargesBy MIKE CORDER

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) _ The top Bosnian Croat war crimes suspect and nine other men today denied massacring civilians in central Bosnia and driving hundreds of other Muslims from their homes in a savage campaign of murder and destruction.

The 10 Bosnian Croat suspects, who surrendered to the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal after pressure from the Croatian government, entered their pleas in arraignments before the U.N. court.

They include Dario Kordic, charged with 13 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes for commanding the Bosnian Croat troops who savagely drove hundreds of Muslims from at least 14 towns in the central Lasva Valley in 1992 and 1993. Troops under his command killed and tortured men, women and children and blew up their homes.

Kordic, 36, looked relaxed and confident as the charges against him were read. The other defendants appeared stern and unmoved.

They include Mario Cerkez, Ivan Santic and Pero Skopljak _ indicted with Kordic on the lesser charge of war crimes for their roles in the Lasva Valley atrocities _ and six lower-ranking suspects charged together with participating in a massacre in the mostly Muslim village of Ahmici in central Bosnia.

If convicted, the 10 face up to life imprisonment. The tribunal has no death penalty.

No trial date was set. The suspects surrendered Monday in return for assurances of a speedy trial, and Kordic and Skopljak's lawyer said she intended to make sure that promise was kept.

``We will do everything to try to make the court to begin the process as soon as possible... . We don't want to sit here for two or three years,'' said Jadranka Slokovic-Glumac.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys have 60 days to file pretrial motions. Slokovic-Glumac said she planned to do so but did not elaborate.

Armed U.N. guards ushered the men in two groups from their cells in a maximum-security prison to the high-security tribunal trial chamber to enter their pleas.

The men stand accused of some of the worst bloodshed against Muslims in more than 3 1/2 years of war in the former Yugoslavia.

In Ahmici alone, more than 100 Muslims _ including women, children and the elderly _ were killed by gunfire or shelling. Every Muslim-owned house and two mosques were destroyed.

Kordic commanded the troops along with Gen. Tihomir Blaskic, who is already on trial. The other suspects are Marinko Katava, Dragan Papic, Drago Josipovic, Vladimir Santic, Zoran Kupreskic and Mirjan Kupreskic.

Croatian President Franjo Tudjman used his strong influence in Bosnian Croat circles to persuade the men to turn themselves in after U.S. authorities and the World Bank put Tudjman and his government under mounting economic pressure to have them arrested.

By getting the suspects to turn themselves in ``voluntarily,'' Tudjman was spared the political embarrassment of having the men arrested and extradited.

All 10 had proclaimed their innocence when they surrendered, saying they welcomed the opportunity to clear their names.

The tribunal, set up in 1993, has indicted 77 war crimes suspects and has 20 in custody. The vast majority of suspects still at large in Bosnia are Serbs, including the court's two most-wanted men: former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his wartime general, Ratko Mladic.