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Hunting the Milosevic Trial's Missing Link

When Bosnian Serb warrior and alleged war criminal Radovan Karadzic escaped arrest last week, a big sigh of relief was likely breathed in a Hague prison cell – by Slobodan Milosevic.


Radovan Karadzic, pictured in June 1995 before brittle peace and arrest warrants sent him into hiding

Every prosecutor relishes the prospect of having two high-profile defendants – old pals, potential snitches – who she can play off each other in the dock. So it is with Carla del Ponte, chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, in the Hague.

The prospect is great for her, considering the ever-rising number of people indicted for crimes by the Tribunal. Exactly 50 indictees presently face trial, and another 30 remain at large.

Carla del Porte in Sarajevo

The chief prosecutor of the Netherlands-based UN war crimes tribunal, Carla Del Ponte

Yet NATO’s failure last week to arrest Radovan Karadzic is a big blow to the prosecutor.

Karadzic, 56, the Bosnian Serb warrior and alleged war criminal indicted on 36 counts of genocide and crimes against humanity, slipped away as if he had advance warning, prolonging his six-year-long game of hide-and-seek. His escape injured not only to the credibility of NATO’s ‘SFOR’ intervention force but potentially del Ponte’s ongoing case against Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president.

The Milosevic trial, running since mid-February, has got off to a rockier start for the prosecution than many observers expected, with the former president launching a multi-media assault against the court, NATO and Western leaders. A key point came when Milosevic denied knowledge of crimes committed in Bosnia during the war in the early 1990s. Regional leaders, he said, deceived him on points like the existence of illegal camps for "ethnic cleansing".

Slobodan Milosevic

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic responds to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, The Netherlands, in this image made from television Thursday, Feb. 14, 2002. On the third day of his trial for allegations of masterminding a ruthless campaign of murder and expulsion in the Balkans, Milosevic demanded that the trial judges respond to his pretrial motions that the court is illegal and that his extradition to The Hague last June was contrary to the Yugoslav constitution.

That denial threw the burden of proof on del Ponte. Only a leader of Karadzic’s stature can provide the perfect solution – direct, authoritative contradiction of Milosevic – perhaps in an effort to implicate the former president instead of himself.

But little is known about potential testimony from Karadzic, should he eventually get caught. The former psychiatrist is known to have evaded arrest twice since 1995, staying in the shadows, reportedly protected by heavily-armed guards. Over half a decade ago in an interview with The Times newspaper of London, like Milosevic now in court, he refused to recognise the Tribunal’s legitimacy, calling it a "political body created to blame the Serbs."

During the war, he openly led brutal attacks by the Bosnian Serb side, including the siege and shelling of Sarajevo, which included the sniping of Croatian and Muslim civilians innocently crossing city streets. He is also accused of being the author of attacks against civilians and UN forces in the town of Srebrenica.

Victims of those killings numbered in the thousands.

Botched stakeouts

Deutsche und französische Friedenstruppen in Sarajevo

German and French NATO peacekeepers in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Last week’s botched stakeout is not the first, but the latest in a series that have called into question SFOR’s determination to arrest indictees.

On Wednesday, the Croatian daily newspaper Novi List cited Croatian intelligence sources in a report that SFOR has opted against seizing Karadzic’s former military chief Ratko Mladic, three times in the last two months, when his exact location was known, reported Yugoslav independent radio station B92.

Last Friday’s failure to catch Karadzic, the second since 1995, allegedly occurred because information was leaked by a French officer, the German daily Hamburger Abendblatt reported. NATO has launched an investigation while denying knowledge of any such leak.

Karadzic reportedly slipped away less than an hour before German and French SFOR soldiers converged on the Bosnian Serb village of Celebici, near the town of Foca.

NATO Flagge

NATO flag

An SFOR spokeswoman, Captain Angela Johnson, told DW-WORLD that SFOR would release no "operational details" on the failed raid, such as the length of time between the order to converge on Celebici and the actually operation.

The French officer, unnamed, is alleged to have rung a Bosnian Serb policeman and told him that "Foca is interesting to us, especially today."

That would, in theory, have been sufficient warning of the raid. Opinion polls suggest that Bosnian Serbs support Karadzic is great numbers, up to 80 percent. Tuesday in Foca, B92 reported, posters supporting the alleged war criminal were taped around town.

They read in Serbian, over a black-and-white photo of Karadzic: "Until death and doomsday, we are going to defend brother Radovan." Months before, SFOR distributed posters offering a US reward of up to 5 million dollars for the arrest of Karadzic and Mladic.

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