Prague, Feb 29 (RFE/RL) - Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic tested NATO's resolve to arrest indicted war criminals by appearing yesterday near a high-level meeting in the northern Bosnian city of Banja Luka.
Karadzic, who has been indicted by the International War Crimes Tribunal for genocide, publicly ignored NATO warnings that it will detain suspected war criminals when it encounters them. News reports say that he was spotted several times in the same building where international peace mediator Carl Bildt was hosting a meeting of Bosnian Serb, Muslim, and Croat officials.
The personal escort of NATO troops accompanying Bildt made no move to detain Karadzic, who is reported to always be accompanied by a heavily-armed elite guard.
Correspondents say that the close encounter embarassed the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR) in Bosnia by coming just a week after IFOR distributed pictures of Karadzic and fifty other indicted war criminals to help its troops recognize and detain them. The photos were distributed in response to an international outcry over press reports that Karadzic and other indicted war criminals had been moving freely through IFOR checkpoints across Bosnia.
IFOR comamander Admiral Leighton Smith said on Bosnian television yesterday that the NATO troops did not try to arrest Karadzic in Banja Luka because they lacked sufficient firepower to do so at the time. Smith said that the NATO soldiers had acted "responsibly" in not trying "to do something that would have...potentialy resulted in the death or serious injury of some civilians in the area."
Analysts say that the incident highlights the difficulty IFOR has in resolving one of the toughest questions surrounding its mission in Bosnia - what to do with the country's indicted war criminals, some of whom still hold official positions and wield considerable polticial and military power.
Under the Dayton Accords, international officials are banned from contact with indicted war criminals. Peace mediators have consistently said that war criminals must be purged from their official positions before Bosnia's rival communities can hope to live peacefully together again.
But IFOR officials to date have avoided trying to arrest high-ranking officials like Karadzic for fear of compromising their role as neutral enforcers of the Dayton peace accords. IFOR commander Smith has tried to solve the dilemma by saying that NATO troops would not actively hunt down war crimes suspects, but would apprehend them if they came across them in the course of regular duties.
Some analysts criticize Smith's position as being too cautious when IFOR's mandate is due to expire at the end of this year. Analyst Patrick Moore at the Open Media Research Institute (OMRI) says that IFOR can only be successful in establishing peace in Bosnia by dealing toughly with challenges.
Moore says that NATO should have learned from the experience of the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) that you cannot cajole or negotiate with (indicted war criminals) because they will constantly test the limits and take advantage of them. He warns that "the longer IFOR waits, the worse the problem becomes."
Analysts say that "testing the limits" may have played a part in Karadzic's decision to appear in public so near NATO forces yesterday. His appearance comes just days after Bosnian Serb leaders resumed contacts with IFOR officials after breaking them off earlier this month to protest the arrest of two Bosnian army officers by the Bosnian government on suspicion of war crimes. The officers were extradited to the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. The War Crimes Tribunal is due to rule tomorrow on whether one of the suspects, General Djordje Djukic, should be indicted or released.