In Pursuit of War Criminals

THE international war crimes tribunal at The Hague clearly wants to bring to trial the individuals responsible for mass murder, torture, and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. But the "policemen" on the ground there - NATO's peacekeepers - have appeared not to be anxious to make the necessary arrests.

The reasons for that reluctance among NATO governments are varied and weighty. Washington, for one, may be desperate to keep US soldiers out of harm's way. Why confront a war-crimes suspect who still has a local following that might seek revenge?

Some Western countries don't want to rekindle the smoldering embers of hatred in Bosnia. France had historic ties to the Serbs and is suspected of holding back on arrests.

And yet all agree that the perpetrators of Bosnia's 1992-95 tragedy must be brought to justice. Without that, survivors of the atrocities may hold on to their animosity while the guilty or their supporters might feel free to repeat the crimes. A country can't be built on that wide-scale tension.

But now, finally, things are changing. The tribunal's lead prosecutor is newly aggressive in her efforts to track down offenders. She is vigorously seeking the cooperation of Balkan governments, particularly a new one in Croatia. NATO's secretary-general, in tandem with America's secretary of state, has reiterated the Western alliance's determination to pursue prominent war-crime suspects, including Bosnia Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and his army chief Gen. Ratko Mladic.

Most important, the top aide to Mr. Karadzic during the war, Momcilo Krajisnik, has been taken prisoner - by French commandos, no less - and sent to The Hague. The French government promises that Karadzic himself will be next.

This accelerates a trend that includes the recent sentencing of a Croatian general for ethnic cleansing and the trial of a Bosnian Serb commander accused of taking part in the killing of thousands of Muslim civilians in the town of Sebrenica.

It's not clear what has sparked this aggressive pursuit. The situation in Bosnia is somewhat more settled after a few years of enforced peace. While the danger of violent reaction still lurks, rounding up the war criminals remains a delicate but necessary task.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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