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U.S. Predicts Eventual Arrest of Karadzic, Other Bosnia Suspects

Balkans: Pentagon's policy of restraint in apprehending accused war criminals is now praised.

April 11, 1998|NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Proclaiming victory for the Pentagon's once-scorned approach to accused war criminals in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Clinton administration officials said Friday that the eventual arrest of all suspects, including Radovan Karadzic, now seems certain.

Even officials at the State Department who had urged the Pentagon to move much more quickly against all accused war criminals now concede that the military's approach has been proven correct.

Karadzic, the wartime political leader of the Bosnian Serbs, has lost almost all of his power in the last year and has dropped from sight.

This week, rumors circulated in Europe that he was trying to negotiate terms for surrender to the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

"This could be very good news," an administration official said referring to the rumors, which he said Washington cannot confirm. "But, if not, it's only a matter of time."

Another administration official cautioned that it may take time to spring the trap on Karadzic. But he said the former Bosnian Serb president has virtually no chance of regaining his power.

After the 1995 Dayton, Ohio, conference that ended Bosnia's bloody ethnic war, many analysts, including top State Department officials, argued that the peace process would collapse if Karadzic and others indicted for war crimes remained at large.

But the Pentagon, and other NATO military commands, insisted that the first priority was to separate the warring factions and seize their heavy weapons, with any attempt to apprehend war criminals coming much later.

"It was a real hot debate," a State Department official said. "There were some who said you have to cut the head off the snake" and go after war criminals immediately.

"I was one of them," the official said. "But the military's analysis was that this would have been risky, would have involved the loss of [U.S. and allied] soldiers and would have made things worse. This turned out to be right, so I have to swallow a rather big pill."

As would be fitting for a policy that stressed gradualism, the successes in the campaign to push to the margins and capture accused war criminals have been incremental, and, at times, almost imperceptible. But in contrast to the situation in November 1995, when the Dayton accords were concluded, there has been progress.

In the first 20 months after Dayton, forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization did not arrest a single indicted war criminal, although Karadzic taunted peacekeeping forces with regular public appearances and flouted provisions of the peace accords intended to bar him from politics.

The Pentagon's caution was regularly derided as a free pass given to the perpetrators of some of the worst atrocities in Europe in half a century.

But in the last eight months, the situation has changed: 30 suspects have been arrested or surrendered voluntarily, a number approaching half of the 77 people who have been indicted by the tribunal.

Karadzic lost his hold on television broadcasting in the Bosnian Serb entity, and a parliamentary election--held under intense pressure from the United States and its allies--installed a government led by his political foes.

U.S. officials say Karadzic is probably still in Pale, the former ski resort near Sarajevo that was his wartime capital.

But, a Pentagon official said, he has stopped using the telephone and other electronic means of communication and now communicates only by mail.

In the months immediately after the Dayton accords, NATO officials warned that arresting Karadzic, Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic or other high-profile war criminals would have touched off a new round of violence, probably aimed at international peacekeeping troops. No one believes that any longer because support for Karadzic has dissipated.

A State Department official said the NATO forces have established an unexpected level of credibility with all sides to the complex conflict by demonstrating an evenhanded approach.

If international troops had moved at once against war criminals, they would have appeared to be anti-Serb because by far the largest number of indictments were issued against Serbs, the official said. But now, the peacekeepers and the tribunal have gained a reputation for impartiality. Accused criminals from all three factions have surrendered or been apprehended.

"The war crimes tribunal has proved itself to be fair and just," the official said. "Three people were released for lack of evidence. There is one person who is out on bail. The word is spreading that you can get a fair trial there."

When two Bosnian Serb suspects were picked up this month, Bosnian Serb police witnessed the arrests. U.S. officials say this is a sharp change from the situation a year ago when the police were loyal to Karadzic, and, in the words of a senior administration official, "were little more than roving bands practicing thuggery."

The turning point may have been last July 10, when British NATO troops arrested one war crimes suspect and killed another in a shootout in the town of Prijedor.

Although officials insist that the death of Simo Drljaca was not planned, they admit that it has had an effect on those under indictment, especially those who believe that the cases against them are thin.

Some experts outside the government say the administration's self-congratulation may be premature, though they agree that the noose is tightening around the 47 indicted war criminals who remain at large.

"There has been significant progress in terms of [Bosnian Serb] public reaction to Karadzic and the fact that he is a hindrance to the peace process," said John Heffernan of the Council for International Justice. "Since . . . Prijedor in July, there has been a heightened fear among those indicted. Karadzic has been less and less visible."

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