THE HAGUE: Bosnian Serb forces acted in self defense during the bloody siege of Sarajevo, the Yugoslav war crimes court heard as the first defense witness took the stand in the trial of ex-army chief Ratko Mladic on Monday.
One of Mladic's officers, Mile Sladoje, told the three-judge panel at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), where Mladic faces charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, that his troops "never were snipers" during the notorious 1990s siege in which 10,000 people died.
"All our activities (in Sarajevo) were defense activities," Sladoje said in a statement read by Mladic's lawyer Miodrag Stojanovic before questioning began.
"There were standing orders, fire could only be returned in response to enemy fire," said Sladoje, an assistant logistics commander in the Bosnian Serb Army, who was saluted by Mladic as he walked into the courtroom.
Dubbed the "Butcher of Bosnia", Mladic, 72, faces 11 charges ranging from hostage-taking to genocide for his role in Bosnia's brutal 1992-95 war following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.
Around 100,000 people were killed and 2.2 million others left homeless in a conflict which included some of the worst atrocities committed on European soil since World War II.
Mladic is charged with involvement in the slaughter of almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995 and the 44-month siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo.
He is accused of waging a "campaign of terror" against Sarajevo's civilians through indiscriminate shelling and deploying snipers during the siege.
But Sladoje, referring to the sniper killing in Sarajevo of a teenage girl, denied there were snipers among his troops or that they had sniper weapons.
"We had normal infantry weapons, we never had snipers or such rifles," the officer told the judges.
Mladic, dressed in a black suit, black tie and white shirt listened attentively as Sladoje spoke.
Judge Alphons Orie admonished Mladic for talking loudly to the officer during a break in proceedings.
"There's no standing, no greeting of witnesses," Orie said when the session resumed. "No loud talking. He (Sladoje) is here as a witness, not an acquaintance of the accused," the judge said.
At Srebrenica, Mladic's forces are accused of overrunning lightly armed Dutch UN troops protecting the supposedly safe enclave, before murdering thousands of men and boys and dumping their bodies into mass graves.
He has also been charged for taking hostage a group of over 200 United Nations peacekeepers during the conflict, keeping them in strategic locations as "human shields" against NATO air strikes.
Judge Orie has given Mladic's lawyers 207 hours to question witnesses -- the same amount of time given to the prosecution, who finished their case earlier this year, the ICTY said in a statement.
There was no restriction on the number of witnesses defense lawyers could call, it added.
Mladic was arrested in Serbia and transferred to the ICTY in 2011.
Known for his outbursts in court, he has denied the charges. He faces life in prison if convicted.
In January, he refused to testify at the trial of Radovan Karadzic, his political counterpart at the time, repeatedly dismissing the UN Yugoslav war crimes tribunal as "satanic".
The two men could have been tried together had they been arrested around the same time. But Karadzic was arrested in July 2008 and Mladic in May 2011.
Last month, the ICTY upheld the charges after reviewing the evidence against Mladic, with judge Orie ruling that he "had a case to answer on all counts of the indictment".