Bosnian Serb Steps Down, Skirting War Crimes Trial

US peace envoy Richard Holbrooke claimed victory in his latest diplomatic foray to the former Yugoslavia, where on Friday he delivered the signed resignation of Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader and an indicted war criminal.

Mr. Karadzic's long-sought resignation from political life clears the way for his party, the Serb Democratic Party (SDS), to participate in Bosnian elections on Sept. 14, and prevents both Serbs and Muslims from boycotting the vote.

Yet the Dayton peace accords call not only for Karadzic's removal from power, but also for him to stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity at the UN War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague. The thorny issue of his arrest is likely to be overlooked now that Bosnian elections can proceed.

Karadzic signed an agreement to withdraw from all political offices and activities of the breakaway Bosnian Serb republic and to step down as president of the nationalistic SDS. He also agreed not to appear in public or in the media.

Robert Frowick, an American, and the chief elections organizer for Bosnia, had threatened to ban the SDS from elections if it didn't remove Karadzic as party president. At the same time, Bosnian Muslims said they would boycott the elections if the SDS was allowed to run with Karadzic as chief of party, and Bosnian Serb leaders threatened a boycott if the SDS was banned.

A boycott by one of the major parties or ethnic groups would have called the validity of the elections into question, possibly delaying the US withdrawal of its 20,000 troops in Bosnia. It became clear to Washington that Karadzic's resignation was essential for all parties to participate in the elections.

As the July 19 deadline approached for Karadzic to resign or the SDS to be banned, Mr. Holbrooke, the man who brokered the Dayton accords, landed in Belgrade for talks with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

Meanwhile, the elections organizer, Mr. Frowick flew to Moscow to secure Foreign Minister Evgenii Primakov's support, as Russia has historically been an ally of Serbia.

Faced with having the SDS struck from the ticket, Bosnian Serb speaker Momcilo Krajisnik, acting Bosnian Serb president Biljana Plavsic, and foreign minister Aleksa Buha agreed to Karadzic's resignation to maintain their own political careers and the opportunity to run in the coming elections.

Karadzic now relies on his ability to influence these leaders from behind the scenes in the Bosnian Serb capital, Pale, where he remains. These leaders are also counting on using the Karadzic name to rally Bosnian Serbs to vote for the SDS.

Karadzic's "charisma among Serbs is now even greater because the Serbs identify themselves as victims," SDS vice president Slobodan Bijelic told the Belgrade daily, Telegraf. "By voting for the SDS, they'll be voting for Karadzic."

Smarting from Holbrooke's breezy success, the office of the International High Representative, Carl Bildt - which failed to remove Karadzic from power - has warned that peacekeepers should watch closely to see that the terms of the resignation are actually implemented. Mr. Bildt's office pointed out that Karadzic has already appeared twice on television since he signed his resignation, despite the condition he refrain from appearing in the media.

Karadzic "as a private citizen, still has the right to suggest that people vote for one party or another," said Colum Murphy, Bildt's spokesman.

Analysts here admit that Karadzic's resignation clearly does not leave the Bosnian Serb government in the hands of more moderate politicians, nor does it signal the intention of the US to push for the arrest of Karadzic. Apparently fearing American casualties in an election year, the Clinton administration has backed off from expanding NATO's mandate to include the arrest of indicted war criminals.

"If IFOR becomes the one who has to arrest war criminals, then you have a whole new mission," said Admiral Leighton Smith. He commands IFOR, the NATO-led 60,000-strong implementation forces in Bosnia.

IFOR is satisfied with the military compliance by the former warring parties and has been reluctant to become involved in enforcing the political mandate of the Dayton peace accords, which it fears might erode the success of its military mission.

Also still free is Gen. Ratko Mladic, commander of Bosnian Serb forces, who has also been indicted on war-crimes charges. Western leaders have refrained from demanding General Mladic's resignation, because he has directed his forces to comply with the peace process.

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