Regional Report: Price Put on Gotovina's Head

Croatian general’s supporters furious over government reward for his arrest.

Regional Report: Price Put on Gotovina's Head

Croatian general’s supporters furious over government reward for his arrest.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

The phones in the interior ministry have been ringing off the hook since its May 10 offer of a 50,000 euro reward for information leading to the arrest of Hague fugitive General Ante Gotovina.

But the callers aren't providing tips - they're hurling a steady stream of invective against the ''treacherous government'' that has put a price on the general’s head.

And that's not all. The general's supporters in Split's Hrvatski Bloc, a right-wing political party, have put up their own reward - 50,000 euro to anyone who can identify those who provide the government with information about Gotovina.

Gotovina was indicted by the tribunal in the summer of 2001 for atrocities committed against Serb civilians during the August 1995 Operation Storm.

However, many Croats consider the general a national hero, and they have not been shy in voicing their disgust over the moderate Croatian government's desire to turn him over to The Hague.

Zagreb, which was once hostile to the tribunal, has increased its cooperation significantly in recent weeks in an effort to fulfil its obligations for future EU membership. The government had extradited all but two war crimes suspects who were wanted by The Hague, and one of them, General Janko Bobetko, died earlier this month.

Gotovina, who has been on the run for more than a year, is now the only suspect left.

Although the government says it doesn't know where Gotovina is, the chief prosecutor at the tribunal, Carla del Ponte, made it clear during her visit to Zagreb last month that the Croatian authorities were still obliged to do everything they could to ensure his transfer to The Hague.

It was in an effort to reassure Del Ponte that Prime Minister Ivica Racan initiated the reward offer.

Among the previous steps taken to improve cooperation with The Hague, Zagreb created a special police unit specifically designed to track down war crimes suspects sought by the tribunal.

It was this secret unit, which operates outside regular police forces, that tracked down Ivica Rajic, a former Bosnian Croat commander who had been hiding in Split for several years. Rajic, one of the first suspects indicted by the tribunal, is wanted for atrocities committed against the Muslim population of Stupni Do.

The unit still exists, now with the sole purpose of finding Gotovina.

However, its efforts to track down the general are often complicated by an establishment that is not always pre-disposed to help.

Just a day before the reward was announced, the Zagreb daily Jutarnji List published a police document that detailed how officers had been spying on six of Gotovina's friends - most of them fellow Croatian army officers - who were suspected of helping the general evade arrest. Included in the list of names were the mayor of Pakostane, Gotovina's birthplace, and the general's brother, Boris Gotovina.

The document published in the paper showed that the police and the secret service had requested permission to wiretap the six friends' phone lines, but that the request had been rejected by the supreme court.

The loyalty many Croats show to their war heroes not only hampers the efforts to track down suspects, it also proves embarrassing to a government that is trying to cooperate with the tribunal.

On the same day Jutarnji List published the police document, Croatian president Stjepan Mesic was visiting Zadar, a coastal town that had declared Gotovina an honorary citizen last year.

Mesic was supposed to meet with Zadar's mayor, Bozidar Kalmeta, but had to cancel the meeting when he learned that the mayor planned to receive him in a hall with Gotovina's picture hanging on the wall. (Mesic's office reportedly contacted Kalmeta to ask if he would remove the picture for the visit, to no avail).

"I refused because Gotovina is the honorary citizen of Zadar. I cannot oppose the democratic decision of our citizens who view Gotovina as a hero," he said.

The government's efforts to hand over war crimes suspects may well cost it support in the country's next elections.

"This money reward offered for information about Gotovina is a degradation and humiliation for the general of the victorious army that successfully defended and liberated the country," said Ivo Sanader, president of the Croatian Democratic League, HDZ, which polls show could win the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Although surveys here showed that most Croats are not likely to be enticed into divulging anything they might know about Gotovina's whereabouts in exchange for reward money, the government decided to offer the reward anyway.

"Our previous attempts to locate Gotovina have failed. Therefore the ministry decided to apply this measure, which is also being used by police forces in other countries," Racan said.

This is only the third time that the Croatian police have ever offered such a reward. The first was for information leading to the murderer of Milan Levar, a tribunal witness who was killed in his yard by a bomb. The second was for help with the identification of those who planted explosives under a monument in a Zagreb cemetery dedicated to those who died in the anti-fascist struggle during the Second World War.

In both cases, the amount offered was 15,000 euro, a fraction of what is being offered for Gotovina.

Drago Hedl is an Osijek-based IWPR contributor.

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