When France protected on-the-run Balkan war lords

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Born in 1955, Ante Gotovina fled Tito's Yugoslavia and joined the French Foreign Legion on January 1st 1973 under the false identity of Ivan Grabvac. Posted to the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment (2ème Régiment Étranger de Parachutistes), in Calvi, Corsica, he made an important acquaintance, that of Dominique Erulin. The two of them served under Dominique's brother, Philippe Erulin, commandant of the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment. Their greatest feat of arms was to jump over Kolwesi (Zaire), in 1978, in order to repatriate Europeans under threat from rebel forces. Ante Gotovina left the Legion in 1978, with the rank of senior corporal, before gaining French nationality in April 1979.

After a period working for French private security companies, he became involved in various criminal activities before going to Croatia in June 1991 (for more details of this itinerary, click here). Then he shot up through the army hierarchy to attain the rank of Lieutenant-General in 1995, and command of the military district of Split. He participated in Operation Tempest (Oluja), the ‘lightning war' that allowed the Croatian army to reconquer the territory briefly occupied by the secessionists of the Republic of Serbian Krajinain.

This operation was in fact prepared in collaboration with Western military intelligence services, notably those of France and the U.S. In the March 17 accessed by Mediapart , Rondot writes, "This is how, in August 1995, a member of staff [of the DGSE] followed the unfolding of Operation Oluja and its reconquest of Krajina by the Croatian army. It is for deeds dating back to this period that General Ante Gotovina is today accused by the ICTY."

Indeed, beginning in the autumn of 1992, as the General affirms, "the Service initiated [a mission of] clandestine help for the Croatian special forces: personnel training and non-lethal weapons provision." These "non-lethal weapons" are said to have been military telecommunications equipment. This is an explicit recognition of the sale by French Intelligence of equipment to the Croatian forces, in flagrant violation of the United Nations embargo.

The Olujua operation was sealed by the exodus of the region's Serb population, abandoned by its leaders and Belgrade. Between 200,000 and 250,000 refugees took to the road to reach Serbia. A number of Croatian army units have been recorded to have been involved in looting and massacres.

Gotovina's arraignment specifies that he is suspected of persecution with political, racial and religious motives, of the forced displacement of a population, and the destruction of towns and villages. He was accused of the murders committed under his authority of at least 150 Serbian civilians from Krajina, and of looting and destroying Serbian homes and other buildings, with the apparent aim of preventing any return of Serbian inhabitants to this region.

After the war, Ante Gotovina was promoted to the role of Inspector General of the Croatian Army, of which he became one of the strongmen. It was only after the death of the ultra-nationalist president Franjo Tujman, on December 9th 1999, that events took a different turn. Croatia, inclined towards European integration, chose to cooperate with the Netherlands-based ICTY, sited in The Hague. Ante Gotovina and six other generals were immediately retired. The Croatian weekly Nacional wrote that Ante Gotovina then attempted to hatch a military coup, whilst selling arms to the terrorist movements of the Irish republican army IRA, and Spanish Basque separatists ETA.

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Jean-Arnault Dérens is editor of Le Courrier des Balkans. He has worked for some 15 years in south-east Europe and has published several books about the region, including Le Piège du Kosovo ('The trap of Kosovo') and, in collaboration with Laurent Geslin, Comprendre les Balkans ('Understanding the Balkans').

Laurent Geslin, a geographer by training, is an independent journalist and photographer, with a long experience of covering events in the Balkans, before focussing his work on the region of the Caucasus.

Le Courrier des Balkans is France's leading news website for the Balkans. Established in 1998, it now offers some 15.000 articles about the region. With some 40 translators and journalists spread across south-east Europe, Le Courrier des Balkans publishes daily reports about political, economic, social and cultural events shaping the countries of south-east Europe.