Accessibility links

Bosnia-Herzegovina: SFOR Still Searching For Wartime Serbian Leaders

  • Julia Geshakova

The NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) in Bosnia continues an intensive search today for war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic in the eastern Bosnian town of Pale. Since the end of the Bosnian war in 1995, the Bosnian Serb wartime leader and his military commander Ratko Mladic have managed to slip through repeated nets set for them. RFE/RL reports that people are asking why it is that the two fugitives remain at large.

Prague, 12 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- For eight years, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic have been playing cat-and-mouse with international troops in Bosnia.

The two men -- one the Bosnian Serbs' wartime leader, the other his military commander -- stand at the top of the list of most-wanted suspects for the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Prosecutors have indicted them on charges of genocide and war crimes during the 1992-95 war, for the siege of Sarajevo, and the July 1995 massacre of more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica.

Karadzic is believed to be hiding in eastern Bosnia and neighboring Montenegro. Mladic is usually said to be holed up in Serbia. Authorities in Serbia and Montenegro deny any knowledge of the suspects' whereabouts.

A spokesman for the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) in Bosnia, Lieutenant Colonel Julian Bower, says that as of this morning, a search operation in Pale was in its third consecutive day. He says authorities will decide whether to pull out after they have sifted through all available information.

"At the moment we have a number of checkpoints out. There are no searches going on at the moment but we are doing an evaluation of the information we have," Bower said.

Some 200 peacekeepers have been searching for Karadzic since 10 January in the Bosnian Serbs' wartime stronghold near Sarajevo. The weekend operation is believed to be the biggest SFOR operation in the past 18 months.

Reports said SFOR began this latest operation after receiving a tip that Karadzic had recently made contact with his family. The troops searched his family home in Pale. They failed to find the fugitive war crimes suspect there, but seized ammunition and documents from the house. Karadzic's wife Liljana denied any recent contact with her husband.

SFOR also searched local medical facilities and the local church, apparently on another tip that Karadzic -- or possibly Mladic -- might have sought medical assistance for an injury.

SFOR spokesman Bower says the current operation differs from previous searches in that it is the first truly joint operation conducted with local police. Local authorities had been unwilling to help track down the war crimes suspects, whom many in Bosnia's Serb entity still consider war heroes.

Bower said the ongoing operation in Pale also differs from previous actions because of the detailed house searches involved. "It is certainly the first time in recent years that we have actually gone into the houses and searched in some detail," he said. "In the past, we have made visits to the houses, but we haven't gone and searched the houses in that detail."

The spokesman says international peacekeepers are satisfied with Bosnian Serb police cooperation, which, he says, made the job easier. "Working as a team has enabled the job to be done in a most professional way. If I could give an example of that: for instance, when we went to a local hospital on [10 January] and there were people from [the Interior Ministry] and people from SFOR, [it] was a lot easier to go and do the operation in a sensitive manner if you have people from the local police force with you," Bower said.

Then why is it that Karadzic, and Mladic, have been able to avoid capture for so long? The question has often been asked in the past, and even more so following the capture of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

U.S. soldiers dragged Hussein out of his hiding place in the north of Iraq in a dramatic operation last month. If the United States could find and arrest Hussein in a country as big as Iraq, why couldn't SFOR troops do the same with Karadzic and Mladic in a tiny Balkan nation? The United States offered a reward of $25 million for information leading to Hussein's arrest. Informers in Bosnia also have been offered a reward, $5 million, for the capture of Karadzic and Mladic.

Spokesman Bower says catching Karadzic and Mladic is the responsibility not just of the international community and SFOR but, more importantly, of the Bosnian Serb authorities. Under the Dayton peace accords that ended the Bosnian war, they are obliged to track down and arrest war crimes suspects.

"The information is out there," Bower said. "Some people in Bosnia must know where these people are because they are being supported by someone and these people have got to be identified, and it's got to be a team effort. And the lead people on that team are the authorities of Bosnia-Herzegovina."

SFOR confirms that the searchers detained two people during the weekend operation in Pale, but has not revealed their names. Local reports said the two men -- one of them a former Bosnian Serb special police officer -- were known as Karadzic supporters.

Bosnian Muslims are disappointed and discouraged by SFOR's fruitless efforts to apprehend Karadzic and Mladic. The Associated Press quoted Amor Masovic, who heads the Muslim Commission for Missing Persons, as saying that the ongoing operation is just a "fun show for the public and a circus." He added, "They will never arrest Karadzic."