Luck finally ran out last week for Simo Drljaca and Milan Kovacevic. A year and a half after Bosnia’s civil war ended, the two ethnic Serbs were living comfortably in the town of Prijedor in northwest Bosnia—even though the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague had indicted them for committing war crimes. Drljaca, until recently Prijedor’s chief of police, headed a paramilitary group during the war that allegedly tortured and killed thousands of Muslim and Croatian prisoners. Kovacevic, a hospital director, is accused of delivering Muslims to the notorious Omarska concentration camp. Despite repeated calls for action by many around the world—including Ontario Appeal Court Judge Louise Arbour, chief prosecutor for the war crimes tribunal —Western powers had done little to apprehend suspects.
But in a stunning turnaround last week, elite British troops arrested Kovacevic at his hospital and sent him to The Hague to await trial. In a separate operation, British troops gunned down Drljaca after he reportedly shot at them during an attempted arrest. It was the first time NATO-led peacekeeping soldiers in Bosnia had actively pursued alleged war criminals, having previously been instructed to make arrests only if they came upon suspects during their normal rounds. But with the fragile peace in Bosnia starting to unravel, NATO’s leadership—not to mention Muslims and Croats—apparently lost patience. British Defence Secretary George Robertson said the raids sent a powerful message to Serbian war criminals still at large. “There are a lot of people,” he said, “who are not going to be sleeping very easily.”
Not all outside powers were delighted by last week’s arrests. The Russian foreign ministry denounced them as “cowboy raids,”
adding: “Russia does not bear and does not intend to bear any responsibility for the consequences of such unilateral actions.” Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic, appearing shaken, suggested NATO’s moves undermined the viability
of the peace agreement signed in 1995 in Dayton, Ohio. But U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen argued the arrests did comply with the peacekeeping terms established in the accord. “I think all who are subject to indictment by the war crimes tribunal should be on notice that at some point in time they will be brought to justice,” Cohen said.
Muslims and Croats insist that there will never be peace in Bosnia unless the war criminals—67 have been charged so far, and more are named in sealed indictments—are prosecuted. Last week’s raids showed NATO is putting its muscle behind that conviction. The most notorious suspect, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, continues to wield significant power from his heavily fortified headquarters in the Serbian-controlled town of Pale. And observers note that if suspected war criminals remain free, the region could disintegrate into renewed fighting when peacekeeping troops begin to leave Bosnia as scheduled next year. If that occurs, the Dayton peace effort will have been nothing more than a hugely expensive and dispiriting pause in one of modern history’s most vicious civil wars.
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