Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bosnia: NATO Net Closes on Karadzic

While the latest SFOR raid may have gathered valuable intelligence, there are also fears it may increase support for Bosnian Serb hardliners.
By Janez Kovac

The NATO-led Stabilisation Force, SFOR, is stepping up its efforts to capture the Bosnian Serb leader and number one war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic.


For two days, peacekeepers with swarms of armored vehicles and helicopters descended on the small eastern Bosnian village of Celebici, near Foca, and its surrounding region, looking for the fugitive and his "support network".


NATO increased its patrols and surveillance across Republika Srpska, RS, earlier this year. The drive to snatch Karadzic peaked in March, when SFOR carried out the first officially confirmed attempt to arrest him near Foca.


Some western experts and local politicians have quietly suggested that such efforts may be counterproductive as they come at a sensitive time, only two months ahead of Bosnia's next general election. Such views are rarely expressed openly, however, as questioning the need for Karadzic's arrest risks the wrath of international public opinion.


Almost seven years after the end of the war, the security situation in Bosnia-Hercegovina has improved to the point where SFOR raids and arrests of war crimes suspects no longer provoke serious unrest. Even the eventual detention of Karadzic himself is not expected to trigger significant violence.


However, his arrest and trial would still significantly boost the popularity of the hard line Serb nationalists grouped round the Serb Democratic Party, SDS, and the Serb Radical Party, SRS.


Despite these concerns, SFOR launched one of its biggest search operations on Wednesday, August 14, ending the action two days later. Officials stressed that no one was arrested or detained in an action aimed primarily at gaining further intelligence on Karadzic's whereabouts.


"This operation is part of SFOR's continued efforts to gather information that will lead to the detention of Radovan Karadzic and other persons indicted for war crimes," said a press release distributed at the start of the action on Wednesday.


It said the operation was warranted by "a large quantity of information concerning Radovan Karadzic's base of operation in southern RS", which had been gathered in a previous SFOR operation near Celebici on February 28 and March 1, 2002.


SFOR's press release of August 15 specified that the operation was aimed at "the circle of people who shelter, feed, alert, guard and move Karadzic in an effort to keep him from justice. The network also includes the locations, routes and methods of transport Karadzic uses to remain at large".


It said intelligence about this illegal support network was improving "by the day, by the hour" and that the latest operation "sheds more light into the dark corners of that network… Now we'll decide when and where to exploit this new information".


On Friday - day three of the recent operation - tight-lipped SFOR officials failed to comment on any concrete results achieved in the operation so far, prompting Serb politicians to complain that it had come at an insensitive time.


Petar Djokic, president of the Socialist Party of RS, said launching an operation of this kind "in a very sensitive region" had contributed to "the homogenisation of the Serbs on the national level, and thus got directly involved in the pre-election campaign, helping the Serb Democratic Party, which is harmful and dangerous both at this moment and in future".


The politicians' complaints are weakened by the fact that none has ever supported the arrest of Bosnian Serb war crimes suspects, especially not of Karadzic, who remains beloved by many Bosnian Serbs, particularly in rural eastern areas.


Bosnians are now used to SFOR's actions and raids, so the latest operation is unlikely to affect the political scene in the RS, which is still dominated by the SDS, the party Karadzic founded.


Most experts believe the best moment to arrest Karadzic and his military commander, Ratko Mladic, was missed long ago in 1996, when Bosnia was in a state of post-war chaos. But NATO-led peacekeepers either feared such arrests would trigger a new war or feared for the safety of their soldiers. Consistently reluctant to go after Karadzic and Mladic in the past, their stance seems to have changed only over the past year.


While the international community has no doubts that Karadzic, Mladic and the other major suspects must eventually be arrested and face trials, concerns that this might assist Bosnian Serb hard-liners to strengthen their grip on power in RS have persuaded SFOR to change its methods. Instead of counting on absolute surprise and launching a raid without informing anybody, SFOR informed the relevant authorities in advance.


SFOR commander Lieutenant General Sylvester met RS president Mirko Sarovic and deputy interior minister Zeljko Janjetovic, both SDS members, on Tuesday. "Officials from the RS have been cooperative with SFOR, and I urge them to continue with this attitude," Sylvester was quoted as saying.


The move seemed to have surprised the SDS and its leaders, who issued several contradictory statements on Thursday and Friday that tried to first negate, and then justify, their "cooperation" - which may not be well received by Bosnian Serb hardliners.


Janez Kovac is a pseudonym for a Sarajevo-based journalist and Gordana Katana is correspondent for Dnevni Avaz in Banja Luka.