Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October/November 1997, Pages 17, 88

Special Report

As U.S. Shifts in Bosnia, NATO Gets Serious About War Criminals

By Richard H. Curtiss

"If there was a heart of the Bosnian darkness, it was Prijedor."—Author Christopher Bennett,Christian Science Monitor, July 18, 1997.

"Fear of casualties is what inhibits NATO and keeps it from hunting down the 70-odd known Yugoslav suspects still at large. But it has to be understood that a demonstrated readiness to take casualties can be precisely the factor that enables soldiers to avoid being shot at."Washington Post editorial, July 11, 1997.

"The bad guys know—or think they know—that the United States will not take casualties. They will test us." —Columnist Richard Cohen, Washington Post, July 15, 1997.

A report attributed to "U.S. intelligence sources" early in July warned, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, that U.S. Special Forces and the CIA had "prepared a secret plan to capture" indicted Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and turn him over to the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague. Probably no one took it seriously but Karadzic, who reportedly had surrounded himself with 200 bodyguards as he pursued a power struggle with his former prot’g’, "Republic of Srpska" President Biljana Plavsic.

Plavsic, whose political base is in western Bosnia around Banja Luka, seemed to have forgotten that her role was to govern the Serb half of Bosnia in name only while waiting for U.S.-led NATO troops to withdraw by June 30, 1998. Then, instead of adhering to the Dayton accord for a tri-partite Muslim, Serb, and Croat-ruled Bosnian Republic, Karadzic, whose political base is around Pale in eastern Bosnia, would decide whether to go it alone in the Serb-ruled 49 percent of that republic, or allow it to be annexed by President Slobodan Milosevic, who governs Serbia and Montenegro in the name of the Federation of Yugoslavia.

Therefore tension had soared in July after Plavsic, whose extreme Serb nationalism echoes or even exceeds that of Milosevic and Karadzic, issued a public denunciation of Karadzic, accusing her former mentor of enriching himself through a monopoly on the customs-free gasoline and cigarettes flowing freely into the Serb-controlled half of Bosnia.

When it came, however, the strike by NATO troops, called "Operation Tango," was not launched against Karadzic. Instead, at 9:30 a.m. on July 10, British special forces, posing as International Red Cross officials, talked their way into the hospital at Prijedor, 120 miles northwest of Sarajevo, and seized its director, Milan Kovacevic.

Kovacevic had been deputy mayor of Prijedor in April 1992 when he allegedly participated in rounding up the city's Muslim inhabitants and then helped supervise their imprisonment in the notorious Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje internment camps, where many allegedly starved or were beaten or shot to death. Kovacevic surrendered without resistance and was flown in an American helicopter to the U.S. military base at Tuzla and then taken in a U.S. C-130 military transport aircraft to The Hague to face trial.

When it came, the strike by NATO troops was not launched against Karadzic.

At the same time, other British commandos surrounded at a reservoir near Prijedor a party of four fishermen that included Simo Drljaca. Drljaca had been forced to step down as Prijedor police chief on charges that he led the Bosnian Serb takeover of the city in April 1992 and subsequently conducted a campaign of harassment that reduced the city's Muslim population from 50,000 then to virtually none today. As a logistics assistant to the Republic of Srpska's interior minister he continued to spend much of his time with the Prijedor police, and was in charge of providing false documents and safe houses to other Bosnian Serbs wanted on war crimes charges.

Drljaca, who escaped capture once before by pointing a machine gun at Czech troops who sought to detain him, opened fire on the British special forces troops, wounding one in the leg. But this time he was killed in a hail of gunfire and his companions, who included his 17-year-old son and a brother-in-law, were detained temporarily.

The simultaneous raids aimed at Kovacevic and Drljaca, both of whom allegedly had enriched themselves on the property and possessions of ousted Muslims, followed the June 27 capture of Slavko Dokmanovic, the Serb former mayor of Vukovar, by troops of the U.N. Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia, an area of Croatia that was occupied by Serbs in 1992 and which is scheduled to be returned to Croatia. Dokmanovic has been indicted in the killing of Croats who took refuge from occupying Serbian forces in a Vukovar hospital.

Approval at the Highest Levels

The June 10 raids by British forces with U.S. logistical support were said to have been approved three months earlier and again just before they were carried out by President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Apparently timed to take advantage of the absence of Drljaca's usual police escort, they came just one day before the second anniversary of the July 11, 1995 capture by Serbs of Srebrenica, which had been under the protection of Dutch troops in the United Nations force that subsequently was replaced by NATO forces. Some 9,000 male Muslim residents and refugees who had been in the city were massacred, allegedly under the direct supervision of Bosnian Serb military commander Gen. Ratko Mladic. Mladic and his erstwhile civilian commander and political rival, Karadzic, are the two most notorious of the 76 mostly-Serb alleged war criminals indicted by the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. Of these, according to Human Rights Watch, "only 10 have been taken into custody."

The top-level approval for the raids was not the only U.S. policy reversal in Bosnia. Neither of the two Serbs targeted on July 11 were among the 76. Instead, they were among subjects of additional secret indictments. News that "many more" such secret indictments had being issued elicited two reactions.

Karadzic activated his Srpska Radio and Television (SRT) to incite Serbs to reprisals against NATO forces, warning that "anyone who carried a gun" in Serb forces during the three years of fighting might be seized. Meanwhile NATO officials said that the secret indictments served notice that henceforth no one who participated in war crimes against NATO forces, warning that "anyone who carried a gun" in Serb forces during the three years of fighting might be seized. Meanwhile NATO officials said that the secret indictments served notice that henceforth no one who participated in war crimes in Bosnia could rest easily.

More significant reversals took place in the rhetoric of American officials. Secretary of Defense William Cohen and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili have maintained that it was not the mission of NATO forces to detain war criminals, and that the 8,000 U.S. troops remaining in the 31,000-member NATO force in Bosnia would be out of Bosnia by June 30, 1998. Now, after the reversal on the ground regarding war criminals, Pentagon rhetoric concerning withdrawal has become more flexible, as State Department language has been all along. President Clinton also opened the door to discussion of a further U.S. presence. He told reporters on July 12, "I believe the present operation will have run its course by then [June 30, 1998] and we'll have to discuss what, if any, involvement the United States should have there...I think it's been a very good thing we've done and I hope the American people would be very proud of it."

Although the rhetoric emanating from Congress remained characteristically overblown, the words were not matched by action.

The Senate put the Clinton administration on notice July 11 that it wants U.S. troops out of Bosnia next June, but it did not include a cutoff of funds for the operation in the Pentagon budget for fiscal year 1998. The train of events, which reflects Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's tougher approach to foreign affairs, especially in Bosnia, also shows careful planning. Since Britain and France have been allied with the Serbs through two world wars, the Bosnian Serbs have considered those two powers their advocates within NATO. Conversely, the Serbs consider the United States, because of its long-standing ties with Muslim Turkey and Saudi Arabia and its more recent alliance with largely Muslim Egypt, Serbia's principal NATO adversary.

The use of British troops in "Operation Tango" obviously was designed to signal the Serbs that the NATO allies are united on the question of arresting war criminals. Initial Serb retaliatory acts were aimed at both British and U.S. forces in Bosnia. There were explosions but no injuries where British troops are stationed. One American was stabbed outside his residence, and another was wounded by one of a series of attacks with grenades or other explosive devices. However, neither American was seriously injured.

Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom remains that the United States was so traumatized by the loss of 18 soldiers in an unsuccessful mission to hunt down a Somali warlord in 1993 that, faced with military casualties, it will withdraw from peacemaking or peacekeeping operations as it did then. As a result, Karadzic almost certainly will orchestrate Serb reprisals against U.S. forces, knowing that if they leave, so will the remaining NATO troops.

It seems from its latest actions, however, that the Clinton administration understands this. Statements by U.S. officials indicate that Serb reprisals will trigger further direct NATO action. Such reactions might include a major strike to seize Karadzic despite his heavy personal security, or perhaps the destruction of the radio station Karadzic is using to stir up reprisals against the NATO forces.

However the immediate situation plays out, a new and more coherent American policy finally is emerging. The U.S. now seems prepared to stay in Bosnia as part of a NATO peacekeeping force. It presumably will continue to lavish aid on the Muslim-led multisectarian Bosnian government, withhold all aid from the Serbs until they cooperate on apprehension of war criminals, and condition aid to the Croats on their performance in allowing displaced Muslims and Serbs to return to their homes in Croat-held parts of Bosnia, and in Croatia itself.

Already economic conditions in the war-devastated but foreign aid-shy;saturated Bosnian government areas are far superior to those in the less damaged Serb-held areas. The latter are paralyzed by Karadzic's corruption and the dearth of foreign aid. With the U.S. now seemingly prepared to "stay the course" laid out by the Dayton accord, it's not only possible but even likely that the long-expected "next round" of fighting in Bosnia will be postponed from next year to never.

Richard H. Curtiss is the executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.




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