When international peacekeeping troops in Bosnia captured Mitar Vasiljevic last month, his arrest was trumpeted as an important coup for the NATO-led Stabilization Force, or SFOR, charged with detaining war criminals.
Mr. Vasiljevic, a Bosnian Serb, was notorious among Muslims in the eastern town of Gorazde as a brutal enforcer of ethnic cleansing during the 1992-to-1995 war in Bosnia. He allegedly threw some victims off a bridge before using them for target practice.
So there was considerable embarrassment when it emerged that SFOR personnel had been renting rooms from Vasiljevic, and sharing his house with him, before his detention.
The incident provided fresh ammunition for critics of SFOR and of Western policy in Bosnia who complain that too little is being done to seize the men who carried out the worst atrocities Europe has seen in half a century.
Especially vocal in her criticism has been Carla del Ponte, who was named last year to be the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, based in The Hague.
"It is a problem that NATO does not make it a priority to capture war criminals in the Balkans," she told a Danish newspaper earlier this month.
"It seems to me that they are apprehending indicted war criminals only if they happen to stumble over them," Mrs. Del Ponte said.
Still on the run
International peacekeeping troops have arrested only 16 indicted war criminals since 1995; 30 publicly indicted men on the wanted list remain at large - including the Bosnian-Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and the former head of the Bosnian-Serb army, Gen. Ratko Mladic.
An unknown number of suspected war criminals are under sealed, secret indictment by the court in The Hague.
On Feb. 28, four Bosnian Serbs went on trial there, accused of torturing and murdering Muslim and Croat civilians at prison camps during the war that followed Bosnia's declaration of independence from Yugoslavia.
Later this month, one of the Bosnian Serb generals accused of ordering the murder of as many as 7,000 Muslims from Srebrenica will go before the court.
Vasiljevic was under a sealed indictment. They are kept secret, court officials say, so as not to alert suspects to the fact that they are subject to arrest. But many know that they are wanted nonetheless, and SFOR officials say it is not always as easy as outsiders think to track them down.
"The ones remaining are the smart ones," says Lt. Gen. Ron Adams, the American commander of SFOR. "A lot of these guys have military experience, and they are fairly shrewd in operational security. It takes intensive human intelligence, because it's no good knowing where a guy was yesterday - you need to know where he's going to be tomorrow."
SFOR soldiers' role, according to NATO's agreement with The Hague tribunal, is to "detain any person indicted for war crimes with whom they come into contact in the exercise of their assigned tasks."
But, a senior SFOR officer adds, "it is not part of SFOR's mission to actively seek" out suspected war criminals.
Some of the most notorious suspects, such as Mr. Karadzic, appear to enjoy taking advantage of this passivity. He was seen in public at his grandson's christening just before Christmas, and spoke on Serb radio the same day, unhindered by SFOR patrols.
Karadzic, says the head of the United Nations mission in Bosnia, Jacques Klein, "is a poisoned cloud hovering over us. His freedom to move about [in Bosnia] is a demonstration of the West's inability to face up to evil."
The continued presence of "ethnic cleansers" in local governments around the country also discourages many refugees from returning to areas from which they were evicted during the war.
"If you wanted ... to return to your home and some of the people that did the ugly work are still running around town, that's something of a deterrent," acknowledged Gen. Montgomery Meigs, the former SFOR commander, as he left his post in October.
More arrests needed
Arresting more indicted war criminals "would be a major encouragement for the people and the authorities that a page has been turned and a new beginning can be made," adds Werner Blatter, the head of the Sarajevo office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
NATO's reticence about hunting down suspects originally stemmed from fears that arrests might spark uncontrollable public protests, especially in Serb-dominated areas of the country. But those concerns have proved groundless, as recent arrests have shown.
Now, critics charge, it is a fear of NATO casualties, especially among US troops, that is restraining SFOR.
"Force protection is the US Army's top priority," argues James Lyon, director of the local office of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based international think tank. "It's a fear of body bags," he says, that is prompting excessive caution.
Whatever the reason for the caution, says an official at The Hague tribunal, "We would like SFOR and NATO to take a more proactive role ... and set up a special task force that could work anywhere in Bosnia.
"In a target-rich environment," the official adds, "there is more that NATO can do."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society