Slobodan Praljak is accused of “ethnic cleansing” in southwestern Bosnia, but is best known as the man who commanded Croat forces which destroyed the historic Stari Most (Old Bridge) in Mostar. The rebuilt bridge opened on Friday.
The shelling of the bridge across the Neretva river in 1993 made international headlines and came to symbolise the senselessness of Bosnia‘s inter-ethnic violence.
“It’s just an old bridge,” Praljak said at the time, showing no regard for the emotional effect the destruction had on ordinary Bosnians of all ethnic backgrounds.
Bosnian Croats and Muslims were allies against the Serbs, but fought each other for 11 months from 1993-1994. Praljak commanded Bosnian Croat forces known as the HVO from July to November 1993.
The UN court at The Hague has accused him and three other former Bosnian Croat officials of being part of a “joint criminal enterprise” which planned to drive Muslims and other non-Croats out of the self-declared Bosnian Croat statelet of Herceg-Bosna.
The mini-state tried unsuccessfully to secede from Bosnia during the war.
In Mostar, one of Bosnia‘s most ethnically-mixed towns, UN prosecutors allege Praljak was involved in the “systematic explusion and forcible transfer of thousands of Bosnian Muslim civilians”.
“It’s just an old bridge”
The 59-year-old, who holds dual Croatian and Bosnian citizenship, turned himself in earlier this year and pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Praljak was born in the southern Bosnian town of Capljina and later studied in the Croatian capital Zagreb, graduating with degrees in electrical engineering, sociology and drama.
He went on to produce television serials and direct a movie, “The Return of Katarina Kozul”, in 1989, before joining the Croatian army to battle rebel Serbs during Croatia‘s 1991-1995 war.
His lack of military experience did not hinder his rise through the ranks and he quickly became a general assisting the Croatian defence minister.
From March 1992 to July 1993, Praljak served as a mediator between the nationalist Croatian regime and the Bosnian Croat leadership, playing an important role in supplying weapons to the HVO.