Prosecutors at the United Nations war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia said his trial highlighted the close links between the Belgrade-based Yugoslav army and Bosnian Serb forces commanded by the now-fugitive General Ratko Mladic throughout the 1992-95 Bosnian war.

Secret documents

Thursday's trial is the most significant case linking the government of Slobodan Milosevic, the late Serbian president, to atrocities in Bosnia and Croatia to be heard at the tribunal since Milosevic's own trial collapsed when he died of a heart attack in 2006.

Forensic experts examine a mass grave in Bosnia [EPA]
In his opening prosecution statement, Mark Harmon cited secret military documents and repeatedly asked the court to go into closed session so he could quote from them.

Harmon told judges that Perisic was a key player in Milosevic's plan to carve out an ethnically pure Serbian state that included large parts of Bosnia and Croatia.

Harmon said that in order to create "Greater Serbia" Milosevic and Perisic used Bosnian Serb and Croatian Serb forces as their proxies, arming, paying and providing them with senior officers.

Authorities in Belgrade set up two special divisions of the army, known as the 30th and 40th personnel centres, as a front for sending Yugoslav troops and officers to serve in the Bosnian Serb and Croatian Serb rebel armies, Harmon said.

The prosecutor also said Perisic had helped funnel weapons, ammunition, communications and logistical equipment to Bosnian Serb forces who used them to commit atrocities unseen in Europe since the second world war.

"This assistance was a carefully guarded state secret since it was in breach of UN resolutions," Harmon said.

Srebrenica massacre

Bosnian Serb forces under Mladic killed 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the UN-protected region of Srebrenica in July 1995.

They also besieged the Bosnian capital Sarajevo for four years, killing thousands.

Milosevic's regime was said to have failed to prevent the Srebrenica genocide [EPA]
Harmon said used bullet and shell casings found in Srebrenica and Sarajevo were produced in Serbia.

The International Court of Justice, a separate UN court that adjudicates disputes between member states, last year cleared Milosevic's government of direct involvement in the Srebrenica genocide, but said it had failed to prevent the slaughter.

Prosecutors also accuse Perisic of failing to investigate or punish his subordinates, such as Mladic, involved in the atrocities.

Instead, Harmon said, "he [Perisic] took affirmative steps to protect General Mladic from accountability before this institution".

Phone conversation

Harmon read from the transcript of an intercepted December 1995 phone conversation between Perisic and Zoran Lilic, the former Yugoslav president, in which the men discuss a deal - allegedly involving the French president at the time, Jacques Chirac - to prevent Mladic being tried at the tribunal.

In the conversation, both men suggest that they, along with Milosevic and Chirac, will offer Mladic a guarantee he will not be arrested or prosecuted in return for the release of two French pilots captured after they were shot down near Sarajevo.

Mladic eventually freed the pilots unharmed.

The transcript was first aired in 2003 at Milosevic's trial, at the time Chirac's office denied he ever offered Mladic such a deal.

Perisic is also charged with failing to prevent or punish the deadly May 1995 shelling by Croatian Serbs of the Croatian capital, Zagreb, that killed seven civilians and injured 194.