NATO's new will in Bosnia

After five lax years, peacekeepers show signs of new vigor to arrest indicted Balkan war criminals.

Slobodan Milosevic, the once-unassailable architect of four Balkan wars, is now behind bars. And on Tuesday, the Yugoslav Army took the remarkable step of charging 183 of its soldiers with crimes committed against ethnic-Albanian civilians in Kosovo.

Yet for NATO nations - which are never short of tough war-crimes rhetoric - the pursuit of justice seems a dilatory affair. More than five years after the Dayton peace accord was signed, Western troops in Bosnia are barely fulfilling one of its prime tenets: the transfer of indicted wartime killers, rapists, and ethnic cleansers to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

"How can men involved in the largest mass slaughter in Europe since the end of World War II still be cruising around the [NATO-controlled] eastern part of Bosnia?" asks Jacques Klein, the top United Nations official in Bosnia. "That is an indictment of us. It's a dangerous signal."

Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his former Army chief Ratko Mladic are charged with genocide but remain at large, making the multiethnic promise of Dayton still a dream. But several new trends point, if modestly, toward a changing political environment that could result in more fugitives being nabbed.

* President Bush's pledge to scale back US forces in the Balkans may first require dealing with the "unfinished business" of arrests, say analysts in Washington. They note that last week's White House response to a tribunal arrest in Bosnia - the first in months - included an uncustomary remembrance: The killing of 7,000 Muslim men at Srebrenica was one of the "darkest episodes" in Bosnia, it said, noting that commanders of this "barbaric operation" - Mr. Karadzic and Mr. Mladic - "deserve to face justice in The Hague."

* The arrest of former Yugoslav President Milosevic last month is increasing psychological pressure on all indictees. He is wanted by the tribunal for crimes in Kosovo, and the charge sheet is expected to expand to include Bosnia. Yugoslavia's current leaders have yet to commit to handing Milosevic over to The Hague, but know that billions of dollars in vital Western reconstruction aid hang in the balance.

* And in Bosnia, the belief is now widespread that further progress on peace - and trying to reestablish at least the semblance of a multiethnic, civil society - will be impossible without the removal of top indicted war criminals. A former key Bosnian Serb leader and Karadzic crony, Biljana Plavsic, gave herself up to The Hague in January, further tightening the noose around high-ranking fugitives.

Justice here is a relative term - and not just for Bosnians - after 3 1/2 years of war that left the nation sharply divided along ethnic lines. French forces are accused of creating a "safe haven" for Serb ringleaders in the French zone of command. American troops are blamed for giving "force protection" priority over any risky arrest mission.

Of the 100 Bosnians publicly indicted by the Hague tribunal, 20 have been apprehended by NATO's Stabilization Force (SFOR). British units have hauled in nearly double the combined US and French total. Still roaming free in Serb areas are an estimated 15 indictees.

"It is critical that the nations move ahead with efforts to detain all the indicted war criminal suspects," says Gen. Wesley Clark, the former NATO supreme commander, in an interview. "The record shows clearly that most of the people of Bosnia, and most Bosnian Serbs, are well aware that the war criminals' day has passed."

Fears are overblown of an uprising in ethnic Serb areas if top leaders are arrested, General Clark says: "Every time the West has moved authoritatively and decisively, the Serbs have gotten out of the way."

Even if key indicted nationalists are out of sight and on the run - Karadzic is rumored to have "drastically" changed his appearance by shaving his trademark shock of gray-white hair - they still exercise influence.

American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who engineered the Dayton agreement, recently wrote in The New York Times that the "reluctance" of NATO and the US to "even attempt" to arrest Karadzic and Mladic is "a signal instance of how inaction can itself be a policy decision, and one with consequences."

SFOR, which divides Bosnia into three sectors run by American, French, and multinational troops, dismisses claims that it is weak on arrests. "We keep reading reports that [indictees] are hanging around drinking coffee, waiting to be apprehended," says British Maj. Ian MacKenzie, the chief SFOR spokesman. "That is fiction."

So what is being done? Past examples illustrate how NATO inconsistency has overshadowed the arrest mission. Take, for instance, the case of Dragan Gagovic, a Bosnian Serb former police chief charged with torture and running rape camps in 1992 in the eastern town of Foca.

In the ocean of Bosnian atrocities, Mr. Gagovic was a relatively small fish, who tribunal officials hoped would help indict Velibor Ostojic, a member of Foca's wartime Crisis Committee and a close Karadzic ally.

In a 1998 report, Human Rights Watch called Foca - home to eight indicted war criminals - a "closed, dark place."

Gagovic was negotiating to hand himself over to the tribunal, but told confidants he feared information that he had about French links to Serb intelligence and criminal deals might endanger him. "If I turn myself over to French soldiers, then I will not get to The Hague alive," Gagovic warned in a panicky telephone conversation, recalled by a Bosnian judicial official whom he had known for years. Days later, in January 1999, he was gunned down by French troops.

The official version of events holds that Gagovic was shot during an arrest attempt by ordinary French troops, when he refused to stop at a checkpoint. Up to that point, French troops had not made a single war-crimes arrest.

The unofficial version - believed by many in the Western intelligence and human rights communities, as well as by ethnic Serbs here - is that Gagovic was targeted in a prearranged ambush. The four students traveling with Gagovic at the time of the attack claim they saw French commandos in white suits and black face masks. The shooting was precise: Gagovic was killed, none of the students were hurt. "It was an assassination," says a Gagovic relative who asked not to be named. French officers refused to hand over a videotape of the incident to American NATO commanders.

Analysts consistently speak of "problems" with getting the French to act against Serbs. Two French officers have been caught in recent years giving NATO intelligence to Serbs in Bosnia and in Kosovo.

But Washington, too, has often shown a reluctance to act (see story.) Among methods used to avoid arrest listed in an 83-page report late last year on Bosnian Serb war criminals by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, is simply: "Live in the US or French sectors."

Though French arrests picked up last year, the "initial reluctance and mixed record" by all NATO troops, ICG estimates, set back Dayton peace progress "by several years."

"At different times, we have thought the French have been the problem, or that the US has been the problem," says Nina Bang-Jensen, head of the International Coalition for Justice, a tribunal watchdog group in Washington. "It's fair to say that each has used the other as an excuse for not making arrests."

That dynamic may be changing, if key arrests are seen by the new administration as a means to cut US troops in the Balkans - a campaign promise of President Bush.

"The desire to leave and start afresh focuses them on: 'What do we need to do to leave in good conscience?' " Ms. Bang-Jensen says. "It seems clear that the arrests are a significant factor in being able to hand things over."

Weighing heavily is the American experience in Somalia, in which an ill-conceived and botched 1993 kidnap attempt left 18 American soldiers dead and US policy in ruins. Still, she says, the White House language is "perhaps a signal that they are fed up, and willing to take risks."

A diplomatic source in Sarajevo confirms that this is a "high priority" for the Bush administration. "If you're Radovan Karadzic, how's your world these days? It's closing in on you; life is getting worse," the source says.

That is a function of high profile incarcerations of Milosevic, Mrs. Plavsic, and a former Serb leader, Momcilo Krajisnik - who, in fact, was arrested by the French.

"Karadzic sees that he and Mladic are the missing links in the chain," says Michael Doyle, an ICG analyst in Sarajevo. "They feel a lot more vulnerable now."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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