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NATO's net tightens on Bosnian war criminals
NATO's net tightens on Bosnian war criminals
There was no resistance. A detachment of the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) simply walked into and occupied the Doboj barracks of an élite Serbian police force protecting the indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic as well as other hard-line politicians in Pale.
The Serbian police unit, operating in breach of the Dayton peace accord brokered in November 1995 to end the three-and-a-half year Balkan war, was disbanded without a shot being fired. Its weapons and vehicles were seized, its communications centre disabled and its database secured. Its members were invited to apply for work in the regular Serbian law enforcement agencies which are now being reorganized under international supervision.
The net of the West is tightening around Karadzic and the other indicted war criminals wanted for trial by the United Nations' International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague.
Karadzic, aged 52 is the former President of Bosnia. He is charged with genocide committed for the purpose of "ethnic cleansing" through the murder of 150,000 people in operations that have left 3 million homeless. He still wields great political power.
Persistent rumours abound around Sarajevo of his imminent arrest, confirmed by British, US and French NATO sources. Foreign television crews have been arriving to cover the event.
A commando unit of SFOR is believed to have undergone specialist training in preparation to snatch him. The only access to his home in a mountain village is a long drive still protected by a heavily armed private army recently reduced to 20 from about 100 troops. The watchers are being watched by journalists.
Karadzic is "responsible in the indictment for some of the worst genocide in Europe since the Holocaust", President Bill Clinton has told his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright very publicly in Washington. "It is essential that he is arrested."
The war crime tribunal began work in 1993 to punish those responsible for a wave of "ethnic cleansing" which swept Bosnia among its Muslim, Orthodox Serb and Roman Catholic Croat communities following the breakup of Yugoslavia. Writing in the eminent US journal Foreign Affairs, Professor Theodor Meron of the New York University School of Law predicts that the institution may well become the forerunner of a permanent international criminal court, a concept now actively considered by the UN General Assembly.
SFOR is under instruction to arrest war crime indictees when it comes into contact with them. Until recently, it refrained from hunting them down. This has now changed. British peacekeeping troops last July killed former police chief Simo Drljaca when he resisted arrest. They also detained Milan Kovacevic, the director of a hospital. Both were named on a list of sealed indictments.
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook has declared that Karadzic will be brought to book. He naturally declines to speculate when the SFOR will strike next.
As he put it, "Karadzic must be required to stand trial. It is vital that the most senior figure indicted does not escape the net.
"There can be no solution in Bosnia", he explains, "unless those responsible for the atrocities of the war are brought to justice. How could the victims of these atrocities and their relatives possibly reconcile and indeed coexist with other communities as long as they know that those responsible for the atrocities are still at large?"
The SFOR raid on the Doboj barracks in November was part of a relentless policy to deprive the hard-line Bosnian Serb establishment of its armed protective shield.
In August, SFOR officially disbanded all private armed units but gave them an opportunity to continue to serve, if they chose, either in a policing role under the authority of the UN International Police Task Force or as military formations under the NATO command.
Shortly afterwards, hundreds of SFOR troops foiled a coup by forces loyal to Karadzic by taking control of all five police stations at Banja Luka and seizing an arsenal of 2,500 weapons. The biggest of the five stations was thought to be the nerve-centre of Karadzic's secret police.
Karadzic and his cronies are still enjoying the dogged loyalty of many Bosnian Serbs. Their parliament has passed a law prohibiting the trial of its citizens beyond the so-called Republic Srpska statelet. Britain has already responded by proposing, so far unsuccessfully, to stage Karadzic's trial on his native soil.
The Serbs also decline to co-operate with their Muslim neighbours across the Dayton agreement line dividing Bosnia. As a result, the Bosnian Serb republic is economically and culturally isolated from Europe, enduring a stagnating economy and phenomenally high unemployment.
Life is easier in the Muslim-Croat federation nearby, which is enjoying Western investment for the reconstruction of the war-torn infrastructure.
Intense diplomatic and economic pressure by the USA, Britain, France and Germany brought to bear on Croatia has just resulted in the arrest of ten war crime suspects there.
The group gave themselves up voluntarily, apparently at the instigation of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. His resistance to international demands for their extradition broke only in October after loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund intended for his country had been blocked by the West and his administration was threatened with complete diplomatic isolation.
The Croatian group now facing trial includes two indicted war criminals most wanted by the Hague court.
They are Dario Kordic, 37, a political leader who had only recently been seen at a concert sitting next to President Tudjman, and General Tihomir Blaskic, 36, who has just been decorated and promoted to a senior post in the regular army.
They are charged with criminal responsibility for "the murder and wounding of Muslim civilians, the deliberate attacking and bombarding of undefended civilian populations, the unlawful destruction of homes, businesses and personal property".
Several others in the group are accused of perpetrating mass rape, torture and wholesale slaughter including entire families being burnt alive while their neighbours were forced to watch. There remains only one Croat war crimes suspect still at large.
The surrender of the Croats doubles the number of indicted war crime suspects in the custody of the tribunal to 20. More than 50 others remain at large, most of them Serbs. Only the Muslims have so far observed fully the ruling of the court by surrendering three indicted men.
Louise Arbour, Chief Prosecutor at the court, is delighted with the co-operation of the Croatians. She has now called on the Bosnian Serb as well as the Yugoslav authorities to comply with the Dayton peace agreement by arresting and surrendering the remaining suspects still in their territories.
She specifically referred to Karadzic as well as Ratko Mladic, 44, the former commander of the Bosnian Serb army, who now keeps a low profile but retains the loyalty of his troops.
Arbour, an eminent Canadian jurist, told a packed press conference in Sarajevo that the failure of the Serb authorities to discharge their obligation to extradite Karadzic could not be used "as an excuse for Western inaction in light of an enormous military presence in the country".
"I think it is scandalous", she went on, "that those who have the responsibility for his arrest continue to fail to discharge that obligation."
There is no question that Karadzic will be allowed to go free despite recent Russian warnings to the West against his detention. But the snatch operation is being prepared with great care. It is treated as an option of last resort.
For one thing, it might turn horribly bloody. Specialists caution that the mountainous forest environment of Pale, the charming ski resort home of Karadzic's hard-line supporters, poses particular obstacles because the Serbs are equipped with heat-seeking missiles.
Also, the operation also threatens to unlease a fury of violence directed at the SFOR troops in Bosnia by a humiliated Serb population. There have been several explosions near SFOR bases in Bosnia already.
Aware of the preparations, Karadzic has grown very cautious. According to people still close to him, he now frequently changes his schedule at short notice, moves about only after dusk and seldom spends two consecutive nights in the same place. He is always accompanied by heavily armed bodyguards. So far he has scrupulously avoided SFOR checkpoints.
He is easily engulfed by rage. His mood sometimes infects the troops donning bullet-proof flak jackets and carrying automatic weapons, especially when taunted by the waiting journalists scenting blood.
"He is not here", they bark back at them. "He is not here."
Thomas Ország-Land is an author and foreign correspondent who writes on global affairs.