Canadian army chief grilled at war crimes tribunal

The head of Canada's army is facing tough questions from defence lawyers in The Hague this week during the war crimes trial of a former Croatian general.

The head of Canada's army, a top contender to replace Rick Hillier as chief of defence staff, is facing a grilling from defence lawyers this week in The Hague during the war crimes trial of a former Croatian general.

Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie has responded calmly to questions during the past three days as a witness in the trial of Ante Gotovina at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the CBC's David Common reported from the city, where both the tribunal and the International Criminal Court are based.

Leslie, now chief of the land staff, was a senior soldier with the UN mission in Croatia in 1995 as heavy fighting broke out between Serb and Croat forces.

Gotovina and two co-accused, Ivan Cermak and Mladen Mrkac, face numerous charges, including murder, plunder and wanton destruction, in connection with the Balkan conflict of the 1990s.

Gotovina's defence team has accused Leslie of giving unreliable and contradictory information about a mortar attack on the town of Knin.

In news reports from 1995, Leslie insisted Croat forces were targeting civilians in the town, actions that would constitute a war crime.

On the stand, Leslie acknowledged he did not personally witness such attacks. As lawyers noted, UN investigators found no evidence of them.

The defence team believes the inconsistency may force prosecutors to drop some of the charges against Gotovina.

In their attempts to discredit Leslie, Gotovina's lawyers also called into question the Meritorious Service Medal he received in 2004 after numerous years of service. The medal recognizes overall outstanding achievements, including a commendation for a rescue of 40 United Nations personnel during the fighting in Knin in August 1995.

Leslie acknowledged he wasn't there when the rescue took place. He said that when he discovered the error just ahead of the medal ceremony, he told his boss, the deputy chief of defence staff, who told him not to worry about the fault.

Leslie can't speak to media

Leslie cannot defend himself from the defence allegations, as he is not permitted to speak to the media about his appearance before the court.

However, the Department of National Defence issued a statement Thursday to rebut the allegations.

"General Leslie's actions in leading the rescue of 40 people are beyond refute and well documented in support of the [Meritorious Service Medal]," Lt.-Gen. Walter Natynczyk wrote in the statement. "While a small error exists in the citation regarding the exact identity of the people in peril, there can be no doubt that these 40 souls were saved as a result of General Leslie's actions.

"Furthermore, the rescue operation was cited as but one demonstration of General Leslie's leadership as Chief of Staff, Sector South HQ in Croatia. It was for his overall performance during the operation that General Leslie received the award."

DND spokesman Doug Drever said the 40 people rescued in Knin were not UN employees but Serbian civilians. When asked whether Leslie was present during the rescue, Drever said, "The general led the operation."

Leslie is the grandson of Gen. Andrew McNaughton, who was head of Canada's army during the Second World War.