Karadzic Arrest Under Way?

Speculation is rife that elite NATO troops are closing in on Hague war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic

Karadzic Arrest Under Way?

Speculation is rife that elite NATO troops are closing in on Hague war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic

A NATO operation to encircle the former Bosnian Serb leader and Hague war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic is currently underway in eastern Bosnia, senior sources in the Yugoslav military and Bosnian Serb police have told IWPR.

The sources claim the operation - whose aim is to locate Karadzic's hide-out and arrest him - began on July 13 and could take anything from seven days to one month to complete.

The reports coincide with a NATO military exercise in eastern Bosnia which starts today, Wednesday. The area of operation includes the Foca region, where Karadzic is believed to be based. The alliance, however, has denied that there's any connection between its activities and the former Bosnian Serb leader.

The British Sunday newspaper, The Observer, quoting three Stabilisation Force, S-For, sources in Banja Luka, reported that a multi-national force had been involved in a gun battle with Karadzic bodyguards last Friday morning. The sources said two NATO soldiers had been injured and the attempted arrest operation aborted.

S-For denied the report. But now, two independent IWPR sources - a senior officer in the Yugoslav army in Belgrade and a high-ranking police official from the Serbian part of Sarajevo, with good contacts among Karadzic's bodyguards - have confirmed details of the arrest operation.

The Yugoslav officer said the operation is the most serious and well-prepared attempt to date to capture The Hague's most wanted fugitive. He said the seriousness of the operation could be judged from the fact that an intelligence unit from the British Special Air Service, SAS, together with the elite German unit, KSK, are involved.

The source said the two plain-clothes groups have been combing a vast, uninhabited area straddling the border between Bosnia, Montenegro and Serbia. So far, he said, they have failed to locate Karadzic's hide-out, but have cut off his escape routes through Serbia and Montenegro - the former Bosnian Serb president has used both to avoid arrest in the past. The Bosnian Serb police source said the international force intends to lay siege to Karadzic's base in an effort flush him out.

The Yugoslav officer said Karadzic's guard consists of "a respectable force of 100 to 130 experienced fighters". He said they were deployed in three rings - outer reconnaissance units; inner heavily-armed mobile units designed to keep attackers at bay; and a contingent of around 30 personal guards.

The source said NATO commandos and Karadzic's guards clashed last Friday on the outskirts of Scepan Polje, a village on the Bosnian border with Montenegro. In addition to The Observer, the incident was reported in the Podgorica daily newspaper Dan on July 14. The paper claimed ten SAS soldiers had been killed and two injured.

The British defence ministry vigorously denied claims that the SAS are involved in an operation to arrest Karadzic. A spokesman told IWPR on July 17, "This is a rumour that has been circulating since the weekend. We would never speculate on the activities of special forces for obvious reasons. I can confirm that any report about a military intervention to arrest Karadzic is false speculation. There is no substance to this."

Officials at The Hague tribunal say they have no knowledge of any attempt to detain Karadzic.

Tribunal spokeswoman Florence Hartmann told the ONASA news agency on July 15, "I don't know if it's true. I did not get any information."

The Bosnian Serb prime minister Mladen Ivanic also sought to throw cold water on the speculation on Monday. "If something really happened, I would certainly have been told," he told reporters in Banja Luka. Ivanic is leading efforts to push through an extradition law, which could result in Karadzic's transfer to The Hague.

The legislation was scheduled to go before the entity's parliament on July 24. But on Tuesday night, Ivanic told Reuters that it would be postponed until September. "The world has waited six years for Karadzic, they can wait one more month, " he said. Some analysts have suggested that the prime minister is trying to avoid having to deliver Karadzic to the tribunal, and would prefer NATO to do the job for him.

To date, there have been three unsuccessful attempts to capture Karadzic. All failed due to a lack of political consensus. The first was in early summer 1997 - an SAS operation code named Tango - aimed at seizing Karadzic, Simo Drljaca, and Milan Kovacevic. All escaped. Drljaca later died resisting arrest by SAS troops in Prijedor. Kovacevic was captured and sent to The Hague where he died of a heart attack.

Sources in the Bosnian Serb entity claim the other two attempts by the SAS collapsed after Karadzic was tipped off. There is a widespread belief that the information came from French S-For sources and that the former Bosnian Serb leader never left French-controlled territory between Foca and Pale.

Now, however, there are no political obstacles to the arrest of Karadzic, especially after the Serbian government handed over former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. The SAS units have the support of Serbian and international politicians, who are for the first time united in a belief that Karadzic's place is behind bars.

Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor and a correspondent for the Sarajevo weekly Dani.

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