REGIONAL REPORT: Bosnian Serb War Crimes Suspects Face Extradition

Republika Srpska's survival now depends on the swift extradition of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic to The Hague

REGIONAL REPORT: Bosnian Serb War Crimes Suspects Face Extradition

Republika Srpska's survival now depends on the swift extradition of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic to The Hague

Two nights before Slobodan Milosevic was spirited off to The Hague, the Serbian government ordered a special security forces' operations unit, known by the acronym JSO, to arrest one of its own former commanders in Belgrade.

A source in the Serbian secret police says the arrest was ordered because of the officer's alleged involvement in the unit's Kosovo operations two years ago. The officer was named in a sealed indictment issued by The Hague war crimes tribunal, said the source, who refused to divulge the name of man concerned.

The JSO unit refused to act on the arrest order. In clear defiance of the government, it helped the man escape over the border into Republika Srpska, RS. The same day, the Belgrade media reported that another JSO officer, Milorad Ulemek Legija, who was dismissed as commander last month, had also crossed into RS with his family.

The escapes, together with Serbia's extradition of Milosevic, have intensified pressure on the Banja Luka authorities to begin to cooperate fully with the tribunal. Unless it does so, it faces the prospect of crippling sanctions which could put the entity's very existence in jeopardy.

Now that Belgrade is finally collaborating with The Hague in a concrete way, the international community is not prepared to allow the RS to remain the last refuge for the region's fugitives.

Robert Beecroft, head of the OSCE mission in Sarajevo, said recently, "There is no room for delay. The focus has shifted from Belgrade to the RS. The reaction of the authorities in RS, and SDS [the Serb Democratic Party] in particular, will be closely monitored in coming days. Others on The Hague list should not believe that they can seek refuge in Republika Srpska."

The one, concrete step the RS authorities could take to signal their willingness to work closely with the tribunal would be the prompt extradition of Bosnia's two most wanted men - Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.

Mladen Ivanic, the entity's reformist prime minister, claims none of the Hague fugitives, including Karadzic and Mladic, are on RS territory. But international officials believe the two suspects are in hiding in eastern Bosnia not far from the Serbian and Montenegrin borders. Some of them even claim the entity's armed forces are providing security for Mladic.

Under the mounting pressure, the RS government has introduced a law on cooperation with the tribunal, which now has to be passed by the Banja Luka parliament. Hague and international officials consider the law unnecessary. But the local authorities need it. By getting parliament to approve the legislation, responsibility for subsequent extraditions would be shared by most political parties in the entity.

Ivanic arrived at The Hague On July 5 to discuss the proposed law. He received a rather frosty reception. "Until the Republika Srpska authorities give tangible proof of their cooperation, you cannot expect us to issue statements of satisfaction," said Jean-Jacques Joris, diplomatic advisor to Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte.

"For the past six years, the authorities in the RS have played a key role in the flight of Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic...The least they can do is to cooperate."

The Banja Luka draft law is almost identical to that recently put forward by the Yugoslav authorities. Belgrade's legislation never got as far as the federal parliament following opposition from the Montenegrin Socialist People's Party.

On his arrival in the Netherlands, Ivanic said there was "no other alternative but to apply the law" and that meant arresting Mladic and Karadzic. He said the legislation demonstrates his government is "ready for extradition". He added, "If I were Karadzic, I'd turn myself in."

But it remains to be seen whether the 84-seat RS parliament will pass the bill. The largest party in the parliament, with 31 seats, is the SDS, founded by Karadzic in 1990. It may abstain or possibly split with conservatives grouping around RS president Mirko Sarovic and more reform-minded members following vice-president Dragan Cavic.

But even if Ivanic manages to get the law through parliament he faces a more serious problem with the police. Several senior police officials, including interior minister Dragomir Jovicic, have allegedly threatened to resign if given orders to carry out arrests of war crimes suspects.

Then there is the fact that Mladic and Karadzic remain popular figures within the entity. Unlike Milosevic, who was sent to The Hague when his popularity had reached its lowest ebb in ten years, the Bosnian Serbs' two wartime leaders withdrew from public life five years ago when their popularity was at its height.

Although international officials in Sarajevo have welcomed the RS government's efforts to introduce the extradition law, they have stepped up pressure on Ivanic to start making arrests immediately.

United States Ambassador Thomas Miller has led the way, demanding the arrests take place before the law is adopted. Miller has also called on Ivanic to form a new coalition with Bosniak and moderate Serb parties and to ditch any links with the SDS.

But either move by Ivanic could provoke political chaos in the entity. Indeed, the voluntary surrender of Mladic and Karadzic appears to be the only peaceful option facing the RS authorities.

A police source in Banja Luka said contacts with Karadzic a week ago suggested the former leader might turn himself in. "There are some indications that Karadzic might surrender because he does not want his people to suffer," the source said. "Mladic said that he would rather kill himself."

Karadzic's wife, Liljana, has denied the rumours. "There is no truth in suggestions that Radovan Karadzic is going to surrender to the Hague tribunal and then testify against Slobodan Milosevic in exchange for a mild sentence," she said in a written statement. "Radovan will never testify against anyone, including Slobodan Milosevic, especially not in exchange for a mild punishment."

One way or another this summer should prove decisive. The fate of Karadzic, Mladic and RS hangs in the balance. RS leaders must choose between cooperating with the tribunal or presiding over the entity's disintegration.

Zeljko Cvijanovic , a member of IWPR's war crimes reporting network, writes regularly for Dani magazine in Sarajevo and other publications.

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