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Bosnia: NATO Grounds Air Force For Suspected Espionage

The NATO-led Stabilization Force in Bosnia, or SFOR, grounded the Bosnian Serb Air Force this week and suspended its commander after a series of discoveries indicating that Air Force servicemen had conducted electronic surveillance against international peacekeepers.

Prague, 30 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The latest affair began 21 May during a routine inspection by the NATO-led Stabilization Force in Bosnia of two Bosnian Serb military radar sites in the Kozara hills in northwestern Bosnia.

The international peacekeepers found and removed from one of the sites what an SFOR spokesman subsequently described as "some equipment and documents that looked suspicious." SFOR chief spokesman, Major Scott Lundy, said the discovery gave SFOR reason to believe that the Bosnian Serb forces may have been monitoring SFOR communications.

"The monitoring of SFOR's electronic transmissions is not permitted under the terms of the Dayton Peace Accord," Lundy said.

Then yesterday, an SFOR spokesman in the Bosnian Serb capital, Banja Luka, Lieutenant John Coppard, announced that on 28 May, some 50 SFOR soldiers had raided the headquarters of the Bosnian Serb Air Force at nearby Zaluzani airfield and seized computers and documents.

"Two VRS [the army of Republika Srpska] Air Force headquarters buildings were searched and about three computers and a large number of documents seized for analysis by SFOR investigators," Coppard said.

Coppard said the evidence would be "analyzed to determine whether or not the headquarters was directing the monitoring of SFOR and NATO aircraft."

SFOR spokesman Lundy, meeting with reporters in Sarajevo today, offered a few details of the investigation and accompanying measures. "The investigation is still going on. But based on the interim results, the commander of SFOR [General John Sylvester] did three things. He suspended [Bosnian Serb commander] General [Milan] Torbica until such time as the investigation is over. He also suspended all training activities of the Bosnian Serb Air Force and air defense. And the third thing was that he insisted that any other activities, either electronic warfare or electronic monitoring activities, be brought to our attention so that they could be dealt with," Lundy said.

Lundy said that given the seriousness and the active approach of commander Sylvester, SFOR expects "an immediate or very quick response by the Bosnian Serb military." But he said SFOR "does not know where the investigation is going exactly at this point."

"We understand that it was a passive monitoring effort that was under way and the logs and all of the documents that were seized from our two inspections now are being analyzed to determine how far back in time this goes. But because it is passive, there is no sort of electronic emission in particular that we picked up on," Lundy said.

It's not clear why the Bosnian Serbs would want to monitor SFOR communications.

The SFOR spokesman said it is almost certain the surveillance equipment could not have been used to help former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic to escape SFOR's attempts to arrest and transfer him to the United Nations' war-crimes tribunal at The Hague. Earlier this year, Karadzic repeatedly eluded SFOR attempts to catch him in and around the southeastern mountain village of Celebici.

As Lundy put it, "the capability required to monitor things such as the raids in Celebici are not thought to have existed at these sites."

The Bosnian Serb general staff issued a statement yesterday alleging the confiscated electronic surveillance equipment had only been used "to train young soldiers, and not for monitoring SFOR and NATO on the ground and in the air." The statement called for talks with SFOR, and decried the publicity that the dispute had unleashed in the media.

Spokesman Lundy described the general staff's remarks as "useful" and he called on the Bosnian Serb Air Force and Army to come forward with any details they may have related to this case. He said the officers at the base during the inspection and confiscation on 28 May were "cooperative."

Former Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik said he doubts the Bosnian Serb armed forces are capable of monitoring NATO. "I don't think the Republika Srpska armed forces are able to monitor such a sophisticated structure like NATO and aren't even capable of eavesdropping on themselves."

Nevertheless, Dodik, a political moderate, said the affair may be linked to the transition of Bosnia's various ethnically based armed forces into a united institution. Dodik noted that SFOR recently discovered an illegal stash of weapons in Mostar in the Muslim-Croat federation and that the Bosnian Serb military might have been spying on the federation forces.

Other possible theories for the alleged surveillance include a desire by the Bosnian Serb authorities to be ready for any potential surprise SFOR inspections of possible illicit arms depots, or an attempt to be fully prepared to protect Bosnian Serb interests in the event of a sudden change in the political situation in neighboring Yugoslavia.