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ZURICH/SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik called the 1995 Srebrenica massacre “the greatest deception of the 20th century” on Thursday in reaction to Swiss rejection of a Serbian extradition request for the Muslim wartime defender of the region.
The remark appeared to be the strongest yet by Dodik casting doubt on what happened 20 years next month when Srebrenica fell to Bosnian Serb forces near the end of the 1992-95 war.
More than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were executed in the days that followed, bulldozed into mass graves then dug up and reburied in a systematic bid to conceal the worst atrocity on European soil since World War Two.
The events that unfolded have been painstakingly pieced together in countless hours of testimony and investigation at a United Nations court in The Hague, but continue to be questioned by Serbs who dispute the death toll and say the whole event has become politicized.
The divergence reflects the depth of division that continues to dog Bosnia and frustrates efforts to foster a sense of national unity.
Dodik was reacting to an announcement by Swiss authorities that they would extradite Naser Oric, who led Muslim Bosniak forces in the Srebrenica region during the 1992-95 Bosnian war, to Bosnia, rather than Serbia, following his arrest two weeks ago in Switzerland.
Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs say Oric’s men killed Serb civilians around Srebrenica earlier in the war, before its fall to Bosnian Serb forces. Oric was found guilty of war crimes in 2006 by a United Nations court in The Hague, but was acquitted on appeal in 2008.
He was arrested in Switzerland on the basis of a Serbian warrant for war crimes issued in early 2014, but Bosnia also said it was pursuing a similar case against him.
The Swiss justice office said priority had been given to the Bosnian handover request.
“The decisive points here are the same criminal acts on which both requests are based were committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that Oric is a citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” it said in a statement.
There was no immediate reaction from Serbia, but Dodik, who is president of an autonomous mainly ethnic Serb region in Bosnia, was furious:
“Naser Oric will remain a war criminal for me and all other Serbs,” the Srna news agency quoted him as saying.
“The prosecution of Oric in Serbia would have brought to light hundreds of pieces of evidence and witnesses to the crimes committed against the Serbs in the Srebrenica region. This is why the Bosniak political elite regard Oric as the last line of defense for the greatest deception of the 20th century – the story about Srebrenica.”
The U.N. court in The Hague has ruled the massacre constituted genocide, a term Serbs reject.
Oric’s arrest had angered Muslim Bosniaks in Bosnia and threatened to derail the planned attendance of Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic at next month’s 20th anniversary commemoration. Vucic called a press conference for 8 p.m. (1800 GMT).
In Bosnia, Munira Subasic, the head of an association of women who lost relatives in the massacre, told Reuters:
“This is the only fair decision."
Reporting by Katharina Bart in ZURICH and Maja Zuvela in SARAJEVO; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Andrew Heavens