US Endgame in Bosnia: Capture War Criminals

Arrest of one suspect and killing of another by NATO forces shows new resolve

Eager to pull their troops out of Bosnia - and to engineer a solid peace in the region - the US and its NATO allies have begun to put more effort into tackling one of the toughest unresolved issues in the former Yugoslavia: apprehending suspected war criminals.

The arrest yesterday by British troops of a Bosnian Serb war-crimes suspect, and the killing of another, represents the beginning of a new approach that western leaders hope will put Bosnia more firmly on the road to peace - and allow a withdrawal of their troops.

The new urgency comes as the US and its partners now appear to believe they have little time left in which to fully implement the 1995 Dayton accords and avert a resumption of war in Bosnia. NATO-led troops are due to withdraw from Bosnia in 11 months, and UN troops are leaving the last sliver of Croatia held by Serbs.

Says a US official: "There was a review of peace implementation, and I think the decision was reached that it had to be re-invigorated because it was inadequate in several areas. One of them was bringing war criminals to justice."

The detentions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia are a departure from a longtime policy of not pushing American commanders to pursue suspects because of fears of retaliation against NATO soldiers.

US officials caution against expecting massive sweeps for indicted war criminals, particularly for Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military chief, Gen. Ratko Mladic, both of whom are heavily protected and retain strong popularity among Bosnian Serbs.

But they say international troops will be more active in responding to opportunities to detain suspects wanted by The Hague-based United Nations War Crimes Tribunal.

A collapse of the Dayton accords would represent an embarrassing failure of the US and its partners to surmount the toughest challenge to stability in Europe since the end of the cold war.

The consequences could be devastating for European unity and transatlantic cooperation as NATO undergoes an unprecedented transformation with the admission of former Communist bloc states.

A resumption of violence among Bosnia's Muslims, Serbs, and Croats would also leave a blot on President Clinton's foreign policy legacy. It was Mr. Clinton who engineered the Dayton Accords and gave the US the lead role in the NATO-led force assigned to enforce them.

Faced with failure, Clinton and his French, German, Russian, Canadian, and British partners had little choice but to adopt a new policy. Says the US official: "As great as the risks are in this that there could be casualties on the part of the international forces, the risks of not taking action were considered greater."

The NATO-led peacekeeping operation successfully separated the forces of Bosnia's Muslim-Croat Federation and Bosnian Serb troops. But provisions of the Dayton accords designed to reunite the country have been consistently blocked by both sides, especially the Bosnian Serbs.

The Bosnian Serbs have refused to turn over indicted war criminals, many of whom hold influential positions. Most prominent is Mr. Karadzic, who maintains a behind-then-scenes lock on power despite agreeing to withdraw from public life.

The situation recently came to a head in a power struggle between Karadzic and Biljana Plavsic, president of Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb sub-state. She accused Karadzic of massive corruption and attempted to fire Interior Minister Dragan Kijac, a key Karadzic operative.

In an apparent effort to hurt Karadzic, British NATO troops Thursday went to arrest two of Mr. Kijac's associates, Simo Drljaca and Mirko Kovacevic, both of whom had been secretly indicted by the UN tribunal for atrocities against Muslims.

Mr. Drljaca, the Prijedor police chief, was killed in a shootout with the British troops, who received US military support. Mr. Kovacevic, a doctor, was detained and was expected to be flown to The Hague.

Three weeks ago, UN troops in Croatia helped arrest the Serb mayor of Vukovar, whom the UN tribunal also sought.

* Paul Wood contributed to this report from Sarajevo

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