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TIMES: Obituary - Bobetko

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  • D Mitrovic
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/printFriendly/0,,1-45-664711,00.html THE TIMES (London) May 01, 2003 General Janko Bobetko Architect of the Croatian Army, who
    Message 1 of 1 , May 1, 2003
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      THE TIMES (London)
      May 01, 2003

      General Janko Bobetko

      Architect of the Croatian Army, who remained defiant
      in the face of war-crimes accusations

      JANKO BOBETKO had two careers, both of which ended in
      controversy. In the first he became one of
      Yugoslavia’s most respected soldiers, and in the
      second he achieved the same position in Croatia. But
      in both cases accusations of excessive nationalism
      eventually put a cloud over his reputation.
      Janko Bobetko was born in a small village near the
      Croatian town of Sibenik in 1919. In 1938 he entered
      the veterinary faculty of the University of Zagreb and
      became a member of the banned Communist Party of
      Yugoslavia. He rapidly became prominent in covert
      action by the student Communists, but his studies and
      his political activities ended in 1941 when his
      country was thrown into the maelstrom of the Second
      World War.

      The Communist student activist now became the
      committed partisan fighter. He joined the Resistance
      as soon as possible and took part in the first
      uprising against the fascist regime in wartime
      Croatia. It failed, but Bobetko continued the
      struggle, becoming a political commissar with the 3rd
      and 4th Brigades of the VII Division of Tito’s
      partisan forces, and ending the war as commissar for
      the XXXII Division. Like so many Yugoslavs, Bobetko
      saw many of his family killed, including his father
      and three brothers.

      After the war Bobetko studied in the military academy
      and served in a number of posts in the Yugoslav
      defence forces, in both the Navy and the Army. He was
      made a general in 1954 and in 1967 he became Chief of
      Staff, a position he held until 1972.

      In addition to his military posts Bobetko represented
      the Army in the leadership of the Yugoslav League of
      Communists, the name the party had adopted after
      Tito’s split from Stalin. From 1967 to 1971 he was
      also a member of the Central Committee of the Croatian
      League of Communists. He was the holder of a number of
      high Yugoslav and some foreign orders, the former
      including the Yugoslav Order of Brotherhood and Unity,
      First Class, and the Gold Star of the Order for
      Service to the People. In South Slav languages the
      words “people” and “nation” are indistinguishable,
      and, if the second of these orders were to be
      translated as “service to the nation”, a key to
      Bobetko’s life could be found.

      In the late 1960s and especially in the opening years
      of the 1970s, the “Croatian Spring” saw a rapid
      intensification of nationalism. But the Croatian
      Spring ended in 1972 with a clampdown by Tito. A
      number of leading Croatians were removed from power
      and expelled from the party. Bobetko was one of them.
      The nation he had served, it seemed, was Croat rather
      than Yugoslav.

      He was to have a chance to serve that nation
      unequivocally when federal, socialist Yugoslavia fell
      apart. The Serb-dominated Yugoslav National Army,
      which entered Croatia in 1991, was vastly superior in
      equipment to the Croatian defensive forces. Bobetko
      returned to the colours and became the chief architect
      of the new Croatian Defence Forces.

      He served initially as an adviser but then assumed
      active command, first in the southern battle zone and
      then, from November 1992 to July 1995, as Chief of
      Staff of all Croatian armed forces. Shortly after his
      resignation the army that he had done so much to
      create won a decisive victory against Serbian forces
      in and around the city of Knin; within days a third of
      the territory seized by Serbs in 1992 had been

      Bobetko remained a member of the Croatian State
      Council until late in 1999. The 1992-95 war had made
      him a national hero, and for many Croats that is what
      he remained, despite the accusations which would lead,
      in September 2002, to the demand by the International
      Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, backed by
      Nato and the EU, for his extradition to stand trial in
      The Hague. These accusations centred on action in
      September 1993 in the Medak pocket, a small area 20
      miles south of Gospic, an action in which it was
      alleged that more than 100 Serb civilians had been

      Bobetko, like many successful soldiers, was not strong
      on modesty or self-effacement, and often belittled the
      contribution of others to the victories he wished to
      claim as his own. He had always opposed any attempt to
      indict Croatian soldiers for alleged war crimes, and
      when indicted he was truculent in his own defence. “I
      will never go. I’m going to fight. They will not take
      me alive,” he vowed. His defiance reinforced the
      popularity that military success had brought him. His
      face appeared on posters across Croatia, and sales of
      his memoirs of the 1992-95 war soared.

      This caused the Government in Zagreb great
      difficulties. The administration formed in 2001 was
      anxious to improve its relations with Nato and the EU,
      in the hope of moving closer to membership of both.
      But so strong was the public support for Bobetko,
      particularly among veterans of the war, that it seemed
      that compliance with the extradition demand might well
      spark civil disorder. Yet the international criminal
      tribunal was threatening to report Croatia to the
      United Nations if Zagreb did not comply. This could
      have resulted in sanctions being imposed on Croatia,
      so moving it further away from the Western system that
      it was so desperate to join.

      Relief for the Government came in November 2002 when
      Bobetko was admitted to hospital. He had long suffered
      heart problems, which had been exacerbated by the
      indictment and the public campaign he was conducting
      against it. The Government promised that he would not
      be extradited while in hospital. The international
      tribunal was adamant, however, and gave up its demand
      for immediate extradition only in February this year,
      after its own medical team had deemed Bobetko unfit to
      stand trial. Although a later demand was made that
      Bobetko be indicted by the Croatian authorities, this
      became unrealistic as his health declined. On April 24
      he returned to his home, where he died five days

      Janko Bobetko published two volumes of memoirs of his
      military exploits. They were very different in style
      and content, and reflected the two different stages of
      his career. The first, published in 1975, concerned
      the XXXII Division in the partisan war; the second,
      All My Battles, appeared in 1996 and concentrated on
      the war of 1992-95.

      General Bobetko is survived by his wife, Magdalena,
      and three sons.

      General Janko Bobetko, soldier, was born on January
      10, 1919. He died on April 29, 2003, aged 83.


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