NATO troops in Bosnia, using military might against officials indicted for war crimes for the first time in their 19-month mission, launched raids Thursday in which one Bosnian Serb was killed and another was taken into custody.
The raids, approved by President Clinton and other NATO leaders, may signal a more aggressive stance toward those who have been indicted and raised questions about whether arrests of key figures such as former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, indicted for genocide, might follow.
Defense Secretary William Cohen, speaking to reporters in Budapest, Hungary, said suspected war criminals have now been put “on notice … that they will be brought to justice.”
Fatally wounded Thursday was Simo Drljaca, the former police chief of Bosnian Serb-held Prijedor, accused of leading brutal ethnic cleansing operations against Bosnian Muslims and Croats.
NATO officials said British troops shot Drljaca in self-defense after he drew a pistol and wounded a NATO soldier while being arrested in Omarska, near Prijedor. American troops did not directly participate.
Drljaca, whose indictment by the Hague-based War Crimes Tribunal had been under seal, had nonetheless known he might be arrested on war crimes charges. Last fall he boasted in an interview with The Boston Globe: “Any time of day or night, I am ready to resist.”
The NATO-led soldiers of the Stabilization Force also detained Milan Kovacevic, a leading political boss in Prijedor. Kovacevic, who was arrested without incident at the Prijedor clinic he heads, was to be transported by U.S. helicopters to The Hague, officials said.
NATO officials said the arrests had been previously approved by NATO Secretary General Javier Solana, NATO commander General George Joulwan and NATO heads of state. President Clinton was briefed on the mission July 4.
“It was a planned operation,” said NATO spokesman Chris Riley, in a telephone interview from Sarajevo. U.S. troops contributed transportation and logistical support but did not physically take part.
The NATO raid Thursday even raised the possibility that the U.S.-led alliance soon may move against Karadzic, the wartime Bosnian Serb leader, and his military chief of staff, Ratko Mladic. The two men, considered the most notorious on the list of those under indictment, still move about freely in the Serb-controlled part of Bosnia, known as the Republika Srpska.
Calls from the international community for Karadzic’s arrest intensified this week as the standoff between ousted Bosnian Serb president and Biljana Plavsic, his hand-picked successor, raised the possibility of a coup or even an armed conflict within the Republika Srpska.
In the Bosnian Serb-held stronghold of Pale, the embattled Plavsic warned of retaliation. “The reaction of the people will be terrible, and for this I cannot bear responsibility,” she wrote in a letter to General William Crouch, head of NATO forces in Bosnia.
Bosnian Serb radio referred to Drljaca’s death as a “brutal murder” in broadcasts Thursday.
President Clinton, during a visit to Warsaw, Poland, said the raids were “the appropriate thing to do.”
NATO officials said Thursday the arrests fell within the NATO peacekeeping troops’ mandate, which allows soldiers to arrest officials indicted for war crimes if they encounter them in the course of their duties.
But Thursday’s planned mission marked a major shift in how that mandate has been interpreted.
For months, NATO soldiers, presumably guided by directives handed down by political leaders not to risk an arrest, have avoided coming into contact with indicted officials or simply overlooked them. NATO officials had openly ruled out “manhunts.”
Thursday’s arrest marked the first deliberate effort to “encounter” an indicted official and arrest him. While British NATO soldiers were carefully tracking Drljaca’s movements last fall, they made it clear they were unlikely to detain him.
Emboldened as a result, indicted officials on all sides of the Bosnian conflict in recent months have flaunted their power, undermining the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord. Thursday’s raid may have been prompted by concerns in Washington and European capitals about Bosnia’s disintegrating peace, particularly given the quickly approaching June 1998 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
But it remains unclear whether Thursday’s arrests are an isolated incident or mark the beginning of a new, hardened NATO stance toward indicted officials.
For months, rumors have circulated of special “snatch squads” aimed at arresting officials, but NATO officials have denied them. In recent days, however, they have moved from denial to simply “no comment.”
Thursday, NATO military officials were talking tough. “This is just a small step in the journey that will last until June ‘98,” Colonel Steven Rausch of the Stabilization Force said in Sarajevo.
At the NATO summit in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Joulwan told reporters: “I would urge” the indicted officials “not miscalculate NATO and NATO’s resolve to make peace.”
Added one former NATO officer Thursday: “I’d be surprised if this is an isolated incident.”
But Drljaca could be a special case. Even though he knew he was under investigation by The Hague, he was unsure when his indictment and arrest would occur. That gave NATO soldiers an element of surprise they do not have with the other already indicted officials.
And Drljaca had long been a thorn in the side of NATO troops in Bosnia, defying them openly. Last fall, he clashed with Czech peacekeepers and threatened them at gunpoint.
Drljaca was forced to step down as Prijedor police chief as a result. But arrogant as ever, he kept his office and secretary despite his reassignment as an adviser to the Bosnian Serb interior ministry.
As one military source said last fall: “Unfortunately, he’s still pulling the strings here.” Drljaca, who ran Prijedor with an iron hand, allegedly demanded kickbacks for apartments and police protection for businesses.
A senior Clinton administration official said Thursday that Drljaca was indicted last March for crimes of complicity in genocide against Bosnian Muslims and Croats in 1992.
Bosnian Muslim survivors have testified that Drljaca determined who was sent to prison camps and how they were treated, including signing all the execution orders.
“I became a victim of his revenge,” said D.E., a Croatian sent to the Keraterm prison camp by Drljaca, in an interview last year. “Shoving of police clubs into the anus and sitting on broken beer bottles were only some of the maltreatments.”
Kovacevic, leader of the Prijedor SDS party, its mayor, and the head of the town clinic, also flaunted his power. He is suspected of skimming off Red Cross funds for his and the party’s use. He is also alleged to have played a role in the Prijedor camps.
Thursday’s action against Drljaca began at 9:30 a.m., NATO officials said. The British NATO soldiers were trying to arrest him at a restaurant near a reservoir in Omarska when he opened fire. The British soldier was only lightly wounded in the leg.