For 19 months, fear of reprisals against peacekeeping troops in Bosnia led leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to avoid having its soldiers carry out the arrest of Bosnia's most-wanted war criminals.
Then, last week, that policy changed. British soldiers, with US logistical and intelligence support, shot dead one Bosnian Serb war-crimes suspect who resisted arrest, and sent one other off for trial at The Hague.
That appears to reveal a major reassessment in Western capitals of the risks of making arrests, and the danger to 31,000 NATO troops here.
"The risk of not arresting the war criminals is greater than the risk of reprisals if NATO does carry out the arrests," says Hrair Balian, Sarajevo director of the International Crisis Group, an independent organization monitoring the Dayton accords. "But I don't think anyone can exclude the possibility of repercussions" for the arrests, Mr. Balian added.
US commanders say they are watching the situation to make sure none of the 8,500 American troops in Bosnia become targets.
"Obviously, tensions are a little bit higher," Lt. Col. Guy Shields, spokesman for US forces in Bosnia, said July 14, citing rhetorical threats. "But ... we still have lines of communication with [Bosnian Serb] military liaisons."
Even before the arrests of the war-crimes suspects, American troops had been exercising extremely rigorous precautions. Soldiers may not leave their bases except in convoys of four vehicles, and must wear full "battle rattle," as they call it, including Kevlar helmet and flak jacket. So far, no US soldier has been killed in Bosnia by hostile fire.
Still, the recent arrest and killing have dramatically raised the ire of Bosnian Serbs. Hundreds turned up for the funeral of the slain suspect, Simo Drljaca, over the weekend, carrying posters of the most high-level war-crimes suspect, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, and yelling threats against American, British, and NATO soldiers.
So far, US commanders say, the threats remain only words. Other international agencies, however, report hostile incidents they say may be linked to the arrests.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is organizing Bosnia's municipal elections in September, reported July 14 that an OSCE vehicle was blown up in front of its offices in the eastern Bosnian Serb town of Zvornik late on July 13. The OSCE says it is not clear if the explosion, which resembles several that occurred before the arrests, was a direct reaction.
On the evening of July 14, another explosion shattered the windows of a building that houses a senior OSCE official in Banja Luka, the largest Serb-held town in Bosnia.
The United Nations also reported signs July 14 of "low-level hostility" by Serbs against UN monitors. But spokesman Alex Ivanko emphasized that, for the 600 UN employees in the Bosnian Serb entity, it's still "business as usual."
Anticipation of further arrests has heightened tension among Serbs. Mr. Karadzic, the man most sought by the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague, would be the most desired target of arrest - but also the most difficult and dangerous. Accused of genocide and crimes against humanity, he is reported to be protected by more than 200 heavily armed bodyguards.
Karadzic - proponent of an ethnically pure Serbian state - has fought international efforts to repatriate some of Bosnia's 1 million refugees and displaced people. Police and local politicians loyal to Karadzic have blown up homes of Muslim refugees trying to return to the part of Bosnia controlled by Serbs.
Once overwhelmingly popular in the Bosnian Serb entity, Karadzic now has many detractors, including Biljana Plavsic, the Bosnian Serb president.
For all the problems Karadzic presents, the memory of an American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, after a failed US attempt to capture warlord Farah Aidid, may inhibit NATO forces from going after him. But international officials say the perceived risk of reprisals may be overblown.
"Neither the mandate nor the risk assessment has changed," says a US Embassy spokesman in Sarajevo. "But as the end of the peacekeeping mandate draws nearer, it has become clearer to everyone that more needs to be done."
Both the House and Senate are moving bills that recommend ending funding for US troops in Bosnia in June 1998. That doesn't give peacekeepers much time.
"The risk of the renewal of war once NATO pulls out if the Dayton peace accords are not fulfilled is very great," Balian says. "And that would place international forces at considerably higher risk."