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Bosnia -- French Troops Conduct Rare Arrest Of Suspected War Criminal

  • Alexandra Poolos

The arrest of Bosnian Serb leader Momcilo Krajisnik yesterday is a breakthrough for the war crimes tribunal -- not only because Krajisnik is the highest-ranking political leader arrested to date, but also, the tribunal says, because he was detained by French NATO forces. RFE/RL's Alexandra Poolos reports.

Prague, 4 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Momcilo Krajisnik was carted off to The Hague yesterday (Monday) in his pajamas after French peacekeepers used explosives to break down the door of his home in Pale, Bosnia. Pale is part of the Bosnian Serb territory controlled by French forces.

Within hours, the suspected war criminal was bundled onto a plane bound for The Hague to stand trial as the highest-ranking Bosnian brought before the war crimes tribunal.

The arrest is perceived, at the tribunal at least, as a turning point for the French in the apprehension of Bosnian war criminals. In the past, French peacekeepers have been criticized by many Western observers for making relatively few arrests in their sector of Bosnia. The French-controlled sector is believed to harbor the highest concentration of indicted war criminals.

Unlike some other NATO peacekeeping units, they have been sluggish to track down those indicted and turn them over to the tribunal. Their reluctance has been translated into allegations that the French have pro-Serb sympathies.

NATO peacekeepers in Bosnia, asked to comment on the significance of the French action, said NATO policy prevents them from revealing the nationality of those involved in particular operations. One press officer said that the arrest can only be called a multinational operation.

But Paul Risley, the spokesman for tribunal prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, says that Krajisnik's arrest was handled by French peacekeepers. He says the arrest shows that the French are finally participating in the hunt for Bosnia's war criminals.

"I think it's quite clear with the arrest of Momcilo Krajisnik that the French are fully cooperating with the tribunal and that, most importantly perhaps, that there is no place within Bosnia that can be considered a safe haven for persons who are indicted for war crimes."

Risley says getting the French to play ball was a primary focus of Del Ponte when she entered the tribunal six months ago.

"One of the priorities of Madame Carla Del Ponte's work as prosecutor -- you know she's only been prosecutor for the past six months -- has been to bring full cooperation from the French, certainly as much as the British, the Americans, and the Dutch have provided in making arrests within Bosnia. Over the past three months she has traveled to Paris twice and she has met with [French] President [Jacques] Chirac here in the Netherlands, here at The Hague tribunal at least once. And certainly one of her priorities in talking with the French has been to instill in them the strength to take on the very delicate and risky task of making arrests in Bosnia."

Risley says that as a result of Del Ponte's efforts, the French have now made two arrests, that of Krajisnik and earlier of Mitar Vasiljevic, a lower-ranking Bosnian Serb.

Krajisnik's arrest could for the first time give war crimes investigators a window into the highest reaches of the wartime Bosnian Serb leadership, which was responsible for displacing and executing thousands of Bosnian Muslims and Croats in an ethnic cleansing campaign between 1992 and 1995.

Not only does it show toughened muscle on the part of NATO, it also reflects the tribunal's tightening focus on prosecuting the individual leaders -- those who planned the mass killings rather than those who pulled the triggers.

As speaker of the Bosnian Serb parliament during the war, and as a close confidant of Radovan Karadzic, Krajisnik took part in decisions about political and military actions in Bosnia. Karadzic is the former Bosnian Serb president who is wanted by the war crimes tribunal. And Krajisnik is also linked to General Ratko Mladic, who led Bosnian Serb military forces and is also on the tribunal's wanted list.

Krajisnik is one of a small handful of leaders with detailed information about Slobodan Milosevic's strategy during the Bosnian war.

Risley says that the arrest of Krajisnik, a politician, shows that the tribunal is intent on prosecuting not just those who wielded the guns, but also those responsible for the political decisions behind the deportations, illegal arrests, ethnic cleansing, rapes, and murders of civilians.

"And it has been clear for some time that one cannot achieve the goals of the international tribunal or Yugoslavia merely by arresting and putting on trial prison camp guards, rapists, thugs, and other individuals who, under the guise of a military uniform, committed terrible acts of violence. It is much more important to find the senior-most (highest-ranking) persons, the senior-most generals and the senior-most political figures, who carried out and meticulously planned and organized the ethnic cleansing and in fact the genocide that occurred in Bosnia."

Krajisnik has been charged with a wide range of offenses: genocide, crimes against humanity, violations of the laws and customs of war, and grave breaches of the post-World War II Geneva Conventions, which codified what are now known as war crimes.