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Regional Report: Noose Tightens Around Bosnian Serb Suspects

International forces step up bid to capture Karadic as pressure mounts on Belgrade to deliver Mladic.
By Chris Stephen

NATO commandos launched raids across Bosnia last weekend as part of a new push to net war crimes suspects Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.


Karadzic, former Bosnian Serb president, and Mladic, his erstwhile army commander, head the unofficial Most Wanted list of The Hague war crimes court.


The NATO commando raids were aimed at smashing the support network, which has allowed Karadzic to evade capture for the past seven years.


Meanwhile, diplomatic pressure is being ratched up to force Belgrade to arrest Mladic.


Karadzic is accused of war crimes including the siege of Sarajevo and the ethnic cleansing of nearly half the country.


Mladic is wanted for crimes including the worst atrocity of the Bosnian war, the massacre of 7,000 unarmed Muslims at Srebrenica.


Both men are on the run, but their experiences as fugitives have been very different.


Karadzic is believed to be making use of the mountains and forests of south- east Bosnia and northern Montenegro to evade capture.


He is said to move between a series of safe houses on both sides of the border, in order to stay one step ahead of NATO.


And the United States has reportedly frozen bank accounts of prominent Serbs thought to be helping the former Pale leader.


Mladic, by contrast, is believed to live in relative comfort in Belgrade, apparently protected by sympathetic generals.


Now, the international community is making a concerted effort to grab both men.


In Bosnia, the NATO raids hit the Bosnian Serbs’ military headquarters in Banja Luka, and parliamentary offices in Pale, in the hills above Sarajevo.


Eye witnesses said documents were taken away together with computers and disc drives.


Meanwhile, Montenegrin abbot, Father Jovan Puric, denied claims made last week by Hague chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte that he was hiding Karadzic at his Ostrog monastery in the Montenegrin mountains.


Father Puric told Belgrade TV station B92 that Karadzic had not been there since his indictment in 1995.


NATO has tried and failed to catch Karadzic several times before: in 1997 a US commando raid was aborted after details were leaked to the press.


Early last year, a much bigger mission saw troops pour into southern Bosnia - only to find that Karadzic had managed to slip away.


Hence the new strategy aimed at strangling the support network which western diplomats think is keeping Karadzic going.


Besides supporting the international war crimes court, the NATO-led Stabilisation Force, SFOR, has a second reason for wanting to nab Karadzic.


Bosnian Serb vice-president Adil Osmanovic, visiting Washington over the weekend, said Karadzic exerts a powerful influence on the Bosnian Serbs, blocking the peace process, despite being on the run.


Osmanovic said Karadzic continues to “pull the main strings” and remains an important figure.


The operation to catch Mladic is more straightforward: it relies on piling pressure - mainly financial - on Belgrade to hand him over.


This week, Del Ponte meets European Union chiefs, and is likely to demand fresh sanctions against Belgrade unless the general is handed over.


More pressure will come in the run up to June 15, when the US Congress is due to decide whether Belgrade has made sufficient progress in handing over war crimes suspects to earn a new raft of economic aid.


Serbia and Montenegro is desperately hoping that recent extraditions will convince both Washington and the EU that it is serious about the war crimes process.


In recent weeks, former Serbian president Milan Milutinovic and Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselji have turned themselves in to The Hague.


There are rumours that two more suspects, Yugoslav army officers Miroslav Radic and Veselin Sljivancanin, will also be handed over.


But this may not be enough. America’s war crimes ambassador, Pierre-Richard Prosper, delivered a harsh message in January that he expected Mladic to be dispatched by the congressional deadline.


With pressure now intense, the new president of Serbia and Montenegro, Svetozar Marovic, threatened to sack anyone in the army found to be harbouring Mladic.


This triggered an immediate denial from the army that it’s protecting him.


Many will think, “Well they would say that wouldn’t they?” But diplomats detect a subtle shift in the military’s position.


Until now, Belgrade had feared arresting Mladic would lead to a bloody confrontation, as he is believed to be protected by 20 special forces soldiers.


However, with the army now promising it is not protecting Mladic, the bodyguards may have been withdrawn.


All of which may leave Mladic vulnerable to arrest. In which case, Del Ponte may be grateful that he is in Belgrade, where he can easily be picked-up.


Belgrade is asking for more time, explaining that to arrest Mladic now may stir nationalist unrest.


The trouble is, Belgrade has run out of excuses: a year ago, the US Congress gave assassinated Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic the benefit of the doubt when he asked for for more time to arrest suspects. Many congressmen now believe time is up for Belgrade.


There is, of course, another factor at work here: America is keen to see the tribunal finish its work, and wants it to close by 2008. This will be impossible unless Karadzic and Mladic are brought in soon - given that their trials and appeals are likely to last several years.


Chris Stephen is IWPR’s bureau chief in The Hague.


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