Prague, 1 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The arrest of the highest-ranking Bosnian Serb war criminal to date may jeopardize cooperation between the Republika Srpska and the international community. It also increases the pressure on indicted war criminals--or those who think they might be.
The Bosnian Serb delegation left an OSCE-sponsored military conference in Vienna soon after army chief-of-staff General Momir Talic's arrest there last week (August 25). He later arrived in The Hague.
Upon returning to Banja Luka, Bosnian Serb delegation leader and Defense Minister Manojlo Milovanovic expressed indignation at what had happened.
The war crimes tribunal had indicted Talic in secret for crimes against humanity in conjunction with the ethnic cleansing of the Prijedor and Sanski Most areas in 1992, when Talic commanded the First Krajina Corps. Some 100,000 non-Serbs were forced to flee in the operation. Many were sent to detention camps such as Omarska or Trnopolje.
Some were raped or died. NATO forces in Bosnia arrested former Bosnian Serb Deputy Prime Minister Radoslav Brdjanin on similar charges in July. He and Talic featured in the same secret indictment from March 14.
Talic's arrest in Austria is the first detention of a major war criminal outside the former Yugoslavia. BBC Television reported last Thursday that top NATO peacekeepers, including General Sir Mike Jackson, often met with Talic in Bosnia but "did not feel confident enough to arrest him on his own turf." NATO commanders approved then President Biljana Plavsic's decision to name him chief-of-staff in February 1998.
At The Hague, spokesman Paul Risley stressed that neither the OSCE nor Austria had been informed in advance that Talic had been charged. According to a report from the BBC's Serbian service, Risley said the practice of indicting war criminals in secret has proven "most effective."
Vienna's "Die Presse" noted that the tribunal informed the Austrian Foreign Ministry of the indictment only on August 24. That ministry then relayed the information to the Justice Ministry, which in turn told the police.
Bosnian Serb leaders from across the political spectrum swiftly condemned the arrest. Moderate Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik said in Banja Luka that the arrest was an "inappropriate action" that "ignored the basic code of diplomatic behavior." Dodik added that "the government is deeply concerned about the safety of any of its citizens."
Zivko Radisic, who is the Serbian representative on the Bosnian joint presidency, said that the tribunal's use of secret indictments may "pose a serious obstacle to the functioning of the institutions of the Republika Srpska." He added that the arrest threatens to jeopardize future cooperation between the Bosnian Serbs and the international community.
Plavsic said that the arrest could lead to a "revolt" among Serbs. The Socialists' Dragutin Ilic called the move "completely immoral." A spokesman for Radovan Karadzic's Serbian Democratic Party demanded that Talic be freed immediately. The spokesman added: "The secret indictments exist only at The Hague tribunal and are aimed only at the Serbs."
British Balkan expert Christopher Bennett said, however, that the top Bosnian Serb leaders can do little in the face of indictments from The Hague. Reuters quoted Bennett as saying that the leaders "are all terrified that they are next." But among soldiers on the ground, it was business as usual. Lieutenant-General Michael Willcocks, who is SFOR's deputy commander for operations, held "detailed discussions" with Bosnian Serb Colonel-General Novica Simic, who is Talic's acting deputy, in Banja Luka on 25 August. The two top officers agreed to continue cooperation. AN SFOR spokesman said that SFOR and the Bosnian Serb military work together on a "good footing." He also noted that it was Austrian police and not SFOR who arrested Talic.
The Yugoslav Foreign Ministry issued a statement in which it called the arrest a "kidnapping." The statement said that Austria, by allowing the arrest to take place, exposed its anti-Serb stance. The statement noted that Austria holds the position of high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
At a Belgrade press conference, Socialist Party spokesman Ivica Dacic said that the OSCE "showed itself to be an ordinary dirty weapon in the hands of the U.S. administration."
The Russian Foreign Ministry took the same line as its Belgrade counterpart. It said in a statement that each particular act of detaining individuals accused of war crimes should first take into account how it will influence the situation in Bosnia and the implementation of the peace agreement. The ministry said that the arrest is bound to affect the further participation of Bosnian delegations in international forums.