AMSTERDAM Judges at the U.N. war crimes tribunal will rule on Thursday whether three former Yugoslav officers were criminally responsible for the 1991 massacre of non-Serbs in the Croatian town of Vukovar, one of the most brutal episodes of the Balkans wars.
Prosecutors have sought life sentences for Mile Mrksic, Miroslav Radic and Veselin Sljivancanin, who are charged with extermination, murder, cruel treatment and torture over acts allegedly committed by forces under their command.
At least 264 people, mainly Croats who had sought shelter in the Vukovar hospital after the fall of the city believing they would be safely evacuated, were taken to a farm by Serb forces then shot and buried with a bulldozer in a mass grave.
The accused, known as the "Vukovar Three", pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors said the men ignored orders to ensure Serb soldiers carried out no acts of retribution on the Croats after a 3-month siege of Vukovar, Croatia's easternmost town, close to the border with Serbia. They then took steps to conceal the crime.
Vukovar was once a pretty Danube River port whose 19th century Austro-Hungarian buildings were reduced to bullet-riddled stumps by the ferocious fighting of 1991.
After the town fell, hundreds of people including the families of hospital staff and some Croatian soldiers, sought refuge in the hospital in the belief they would be evacuated in the presence of international observers.
Instead, local armed Serbs were allowed into the hospital on November 19 where they started abusing and beating patients.
In spite of protests by the head of the hospital, soldiers separated the men from the women, taking about 400 people from the facility and then transporting 300 in buses to a farm building in nearby Ovcara.
There, the captives were beaten for several hours and afterwards transported in groups of about 10 to 20 to a site close by were at least 264 were shot.
For most Croats, Vukovar remains a symbol of Croatia's struggle for independence and thousands of ordinary people and officials flock there every November to commemorate the suffering the town endured in autumn 1991.
A large part of the town has been rebuilt but many walls are still scarred by shells and streets are lined with remnants of houses destroyed in the war. Serb and Croat communities living there remain divided.
(Additional reporting by Zoran Radosavljevic in Zagreb)