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NATO: Action On War Criminals While The U.S. Stays Reserved

Washington, 11 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - NATO's carefully prepared arrest of an indicted Bosnian Serb suspected of war crimes gives some substance to familiar U.S. rhetoric that justice will be done but also raises more questions than Washington officials seem ready to answer at this stage.

U.S. National Security Adviser Samuel Berger refused to answer any questions when he gave a brief statement to reporters Thursday about the incident.

Berger only confirmed that British NATO troops shot and killed one war crimes suspect - Simo Drjaca - when he resisted arrest and opened fire. He said another suspect, Milan Kovacevic, was detained and sent immediately to the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague to face charges of genocide against Bosnian Muslims and Croats in the Prijedor area in 1992.

Berger, who was in Warsaw with President Bill Clinton, said no American soldiers were involved but the U.S. provided logistical support and transportation for the raid, code-named "Operation Tango."

President Clinton, according to Berger, was satisfied at the outcome and praised the NATO Stabilization Forces (SFOR) for acting courageously and in an appropriate manner.

Other U.S. officials told reporters that Clinton was informed last week about Operation Tango and approved of the action saying it involved little risk.

It was the first deliberate attempt to arrest war criminals since NATO peacekeepers went to Bosnia in December 1995 and raised a host of questions that went mostly unanswered in Washington, as well as Warsaw.

Reporters wanted to know whether there has been a change of policy, when and why and whether NATO would now try to arrest the major indicted war crimes suspects - former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic and army commander Ratko Mladic.

Berger said on the policy issue that NATO's mission allows soldiers "to apprehend indicted war criminals encountered in the course of its duties and if the tactical situation permits," adding "this was such a situation."

He declined to comment on the possibility of similar arrests. Elsewhere, U.S. officials repeated time-worn statements that Mladic and Karadzic would be brought to justice eventually.

Defense Secretary William Cohen, also travelling in Europe, told reporters last night that "all those subject to indictment by the War Crimes Tribunal should be on notice that at some point in time they will be brought to justice."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the destinies of Mladic and Karadzic lie in The Hague.

Burns said he would not go into details and that it's better "to keep all those indicted war criminals guessing as to what's going to happen."

He added that "actions speak louder than words" and that yesterday's raid, as well as another arrest earlier this month in Croatian East Slavonia, demonstrates the resolve of the international community to see justice done.

The earlier incident involved investigators from The Hague and United Nations soldiers who caught Slavko Dokmanovic, the former mayor of Vukovar.

Analysts said both actions seemed carefully planned, minimizing the risk to the forces involved, one of the longstanding rules of NATO engagement in Bosnia. And Burns noted that he is not aware of any change in the rules.

The U.S. has consistently and repeatedly complained about the slow pace of implementing the Dayton Peace Accords, particularly the provisions on bringing war criminals to trial in The Hague.

Burns repeated that the primary responsibility for arresting war criminals lies with the Balkan leaders who signed the Peace Accords. He said that except for Bosnian President Aliya Izetbegovic, all have failed to meet their responsibilities.