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

Bosnian Serbs Turn in Mladic Aide

After 12 years of almost no cooperation with the Hague tribunal, Bosnian Serb police finally arrest war crimes suspect wanted by the court.
By Merdijana Sadović
One of three most wanted war crimes fugitives sought by the Hague tribunal, Bosnian Serb army general Zdravko Tolimir, was arrested this week near the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica, as he tried to cross the border with Serbia.



Tolimir - one of the closest aides of top war crimes fugitive general Ratko Mladic - was indicted in 2005 for his alleged role in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. Charges against him include genocide and complicity to commit genocide, as well as crimes against humanity.



The operation which led to his capture was carried out by the Republika Srpska, RS, police, who acted on a tip-off from the Serbian interior ministry.



It’s the first time RS authorities, who have long been criticised for not cooperating with the Hague tribunal, have apprehended an individual indicted by the court.



The Bosnian daily Avaz reported this week that on May 31, Serbian police informed RS authorities that a high-ranking war crimes fugitive had attempted to cross the border with Serbia during the day.



Shortly after that, RS police, supported by the state police and European forces deployed in Bosnia, EUFOR, blocked the border crossing between Bratunac in Bosnia and Ljubovija in Serbia, only a few kilometres from Srebrenica.



Heavily armed Serbian police were deployed on the other side of the border, ready to prevent Tolimir from crossing over.



According to the sources in Serbia and RS, the whole operation was over in less than two hours. It was not immediately clear whether Tolimir resisted the arrest.



RS premier Miroslav Dodik personally informed the Hague tribunal about the outcome of the arrest operation, the local media reported.



Tolimir, who apparently has some serious health problems, was later transferred to Sarajevo, where he underwent medical check-ups. The indictee allegedly suffered two strokes recently, but although his health condition is quite serious, he was transferred to The Hague on June 1.



During the 1992-95 Bosnian war, Tolimir, 58, served as the assistant commander of intelligence and security on the main staff of the Bosnian Serb army, VRS, reporting directly to Mladic.



He was indicted in February 2005 for his alleged role in the crimes committed in Srebrenica and Zepa in July 1995. He was supposed to stand trial with seven other Bosnian Serb army and police officials - Vujadin Popović, Ljubiša Beara, Drago Nikolić, Ljubomir Borovčanin, Radivoje Miletić, Milan Gvero and Vinko Pandurević - but because he was still on the run at the time the trial was due to start, his indictment was separated from the others in August 2006.



Hague tribunal officials welcomed Tolimir’s arrest and said they hoped “those believed to be most responsible for the genocide in Srebrenica, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, will follow suit".



“This arrest is extremely significant,” the EU Special Representative to Bosnia Christian Schwarz-Schilling said in a statement issued on June 1. “On the one hand, an important war crimes suspect, charged with genocide, will now face justice. On the other, the arrest itself was, for the first time, carried out by the RS police.”



Schwarz-Schilling added that although nearly 12 years have passed since genocide was committed in Srebrenica, the need to bring those responsible to justice is “as great today as it was in 1995”.



“I expect the RS police to build on [this week’s] success and to help deliver all remaining war crimes suspects rapidly to justice, in particular, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic,” reads the statement.



The survivors of the Srebrenica genocide were also pleased with the arrest, said that it was long overdue.



"This is good news for the victims, but it should have happened 12 years ago. Tolimir had 12 years to enjoy his freedom," Munira Subasic, the head of the Association of Women from Srebrenica, told Reuters news agency.



Some observers say Tolimir’s arrest is an important breakthrough in a shaky relationship between the RS and the tribunal. For almost 12 years, the Bosnian Serb authorities had resisted the international pressure to cooperate with the tribunal and bring war crimes suspects to justice.



So it seems, the timing of the arrest was almost perfect for the RS and Serbia.



Over the last week, the RS police and judiciary have been heavily criticised for allowing a man convicted of war crimes in eastern Bosnia, Radovan Stankovic, to escape while serving his 20-year-sentence in Foca prison, which is under RS police jurisdiction.



Stankovic, whose case was the first to be transferred to Bosnia, was recently convicted by the Bosnian war crimes court for wartime rapes in Foca. His escape and the sloppy investigation into the incident placed the RS authorities under renewed scrutiny. Banja Luka will be hoping that Tolimir’s arrest will get it out of tight spot.



The arrest couldn’t have come at a better moment for Serbia either. Military analyst Aleksandar Radić told Belgrade Television B92 that the result of this successful operation will certainly be new talks on Stabilisation and Association Agreement between Brussels and Belgrade, which is the first step towards Serbia’s membership of the EU.



Serbian officials also expect the tribunal’s chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, whose visit to Belgrade is scheduled for the beginning of June, will see the arrest as a sign that Serbia is willing to cooperate fully with the Hague tribunal.



Out of 161 persons indicted by the tribunal, five remain at large. They are Mladic, Karadzic, former president of the self-proclaimed Republic of Serb Krajina Goran Hadzic, wartime commander of the Bosnian Serb police Stojan Zupljanin and ex-Serbian police general Vlastimir Djordjevic.



Apart from Djordjevic, they are all believed to be hiding in Serbia and RS.



Merdijana Sadovic is IWPR’s Hague programme manager.