Prague, Feb. 8 (RFE/RL) - The Bosnia peace accord is facing new challenges amid mounting tension over the Muslim-led government's detention of two senior Serb officers on suspicion of war crimes.
Bosnian Serb leaders suspended all contact with the government two days ago to protest the arrests of Colonel Aleksa Krsmanovic and General Djordje Djukic, top aides to Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic. The two men were seized by Bosnian government security forces 10 days ago after they made a wrong turn near Sarajevo. They are part of a group of eight Bosnian Serbs detained by the Muslim-led government during the last three weeks.
The Bosnian government says it has evidence that Djukic and Krsmanovic organized and participated in the killing of civilians. The United Nations War Crimes Tribunal is currently evaluating the evidence and deciding whether to issue formal indictments.
The events of the past few days have been described as the most serious dispute to arise between the Bosnian government and Serb forces since the Dayton accords were signed in December.
Bosnian Serb General Milan Gvero, a deputy to Mladic, has warned that the men must be released if peace is to be maintained.
Mladic, who is himself an indicted war criminal, emerged yesterday after months of keeping a low profile to issue a stern warning about the arrests. He said the "kidnapping" of the Bosnian Serb officers casts doubt on the impartiality of the NATO-led peace implementation force (IFOR). He threatened to suspend relations with IFOR unless it intervened to secure the officers' release.
Correspondents note that Mladic has reason for concern because the two men could reveal incriminating information about ethnic cleansing carried out by top Bosnian Serb leaders, including Mladic himself.
Bosnian Serb leaders say the arrests violate the peace accord's provisions on freedom of movement, and warn of retaliatory action unless the men are freed. They say the detentions could jeopardize other parts of the Dayton accord, including the contested transfer of Serb-held suburbs of Sarajevo to government control, scheduled to take place by the middle of next month. The Bosnian Serbs also maintain the two officers were arrested illegally in the demilitarized zone of separation, not in Bosnian government territory.
In an effort to defuse the tension, U.S. Admiral Leighton Smith, commander of NATO forces in Bosnia, went to Pale yesterday to urge Bosnian Serb leaders to refrain from retaliatory action. Other NATO officials have voiced concern. Brigadier Andrew Cumming, a British officer who heads NATO's Joint Operations Center, has called the arrests "provocative and inflammatory," and warned that the situation could get out of hand.
The United Nations War Crimes Tribunal is supporting the Bosnian government's decision to detain the officers. Chief Prosecutor Richard Goldstone issued a statement yesterday asking the government to continue to hold the two men while international investigators assess the evidence against them.
Goldstone's critics note that he has consistently ignored the political implications of his actions. But he says the Tribunal, which has thus far indicted more than 50 suspects, mostly Serbs, must proceed on the merits of individual cases, regardless of the situation on the ground.
For its part, the U.S. State Department said the Bosnian government acted appropriately by asking the Tribunal to decide the fate of the two officers. But State Department Spokesman Glynn Davies also expressed concern about the circumstances of their arrest. Davies underlined the importance of respecting the Dayton peace accords, including those provisions dealing with freedom of movement.
Analysts say the arrests highlight the ambiguities and contradictions within the U.S.-brokered Dayton agreement. The peace accords require all sides of the conflict to cooperate with international investigators. At the same time, however, local authorities are not specifically prevented from arresting and trying suspects independently of the Tribunal.
Critics of the accord say the handling war crimes needs to be clarified in order to ensure that impartial justice is achieved. They say local authorities should not be allowed to detain suspected war criminals until the U.N. Tribunal issues an indictment. Otherwise, critics contend, the pursuit of war criminals will end up unraveling Bosnia's delicate peace.