Much of Bosnia still a haven for war criminals
by Philip Shenon
As NATO peacekeeping troops enter their fifth year on patrol in the former war zone of Bosnia and Herzegovina, dozens of Bosnians accused of genocide, rape and other war crimes have not only eluded capture, but are reported to live openly with little fear of arrest.
Western diplomats, human rights advocates and Balkans specialists say much of Bosnia has become a virtual safe haven for war crimes suspects, especially southeastern Bosnia, which is under the command of French peacekeeping troops and is a stronghold of the Bosnian Serbs.
Many of the most notorious suspects are known to live in the French zone, including the former Bosnian Serb civilian leader, Radovan Karadzic, who has been indicted for genocide. In the American zone in northern Bosnia, only three suspects have been arrested since NATO troops arrived in December 1995.
Of the 63 people named in public indictments for their part in the ethnic violence that convulsed Bosnia between 1992 and 1995, only 14 have been captured by NATO peacekeepers. Another 21 have surrendered or have been forcibly apprehended outside Bosnia and turned over to the international war crimes tribunal in the Hague. All but two of the dozens left on the loose, in the midst of the large NATO peacekeeping force deployed in Bosnia since December 1995, are ethnic Serbs; the two others are Croats.
The French have not forcibly apprehended any war crimes suspects on their own in the sector, where thousands of other European soldiers are also stationed. Two suspects were captured in the zone. But senior Western officials say the arrests were carried out by German special forces.
American troops have come under harsh criticism from human rights groups and Balkans experts. The most important suspect they have arrested was a Bosnian Serb commander caught last December a few hours after he crossed into the American sector from the French zone.
The British record stands in sharp contrast. Since Prime Minister Tony Blair came to power in 1997 with a pledge to track down war criminals, the British military has aggressively pursued suspects in western Bosnia.
Eleven suspects have been arrested in the British sector; another was killed in a shootout with the peacekeepers.
`The worst of the worst war criminals are in the French sector,' said Nina Bang-Jensen, executive director of the Coalition for International Justice, a Washington-based group that tries to monitor the whereabouts of war crimes suspects. `The record speaks for itself. It's hard not to conclude that the French have decided to protect these people.'
The French government insists that it is eager to apprehend war criminals, but that its attempts to capture suspects have been hampered by the mountainous terrain of southeastern Bosnia, where it is easier for suspects to hide.
In an interview Friday, Defense Minister Alain Richard of France denied that France had created a safe haven. But he would not discuss details of French involvement in the arrest of any suspects.
A spokesman for the NATO force in Bosnia, Col. David Raney of the United States Army, refuted suggestions that French or American peacekeeping troops turned a blind eye to war crimes suspects. `Nothing could be further from the truth,' he said, adding that many suspects captured so far were violent and well-armed.
Senior Western officials and human rights groups say that indicted war crimes suspects living in the American and British sectors are generally in hiding, moving from house to house and even village to village to avoid detection.
The most notorious war crimes suspect known to have lived in the American sector, Ratko Mladic, the wartime Bosnian Serb military commander, is said to have left his top-security military facility in eastern Bosnia and moved to Serbia more than a year ago because of powerful connections in its capital, Belgrade, and the risk of arrest.
In the French zone, diplomats say, there is evidence that suspects living in the American and British sectors have recently moved in, apparently believing they will be safe.
Human rights groups allege that the French are failing to arrest war criminals both because of longstanding French sympathy toward the Serbs and because of fear of revenge attacks on French soldiers.
Ms. Bang-Jensen said that while American soldiers may have turned a blind eye to war crimes suspects, `you didn't see them fraternizing with these criminals.'
Earlier in the peacekeeping operation, human rights monitors and other witnesses found French troops drinking alongside war crimes suspects in bars and walking alongside them in the streets.
Last year, France acknowledged that it had transferred a French Army officer out of Bosnia because of what were described as unauthorized secret meetings with Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb president now under indictment.
Another French officer is now facing trial on charges that he spied for the government of Yugoslavia and provided it with information on likely military targets in the NATO bombing campaign over Kosovo.
In the one incident in which French soldiers were reported ready to arrest a war crimes suspect in their zone, they ended up killing him in what American and other Western officials view as alarming and suspicious circumstances.
Dragan Gagovic, former police chief of the city of Foca, which is in the French sector, was gunned down at a French military roadblock while he was in his car with at least two and as many as five children, none of whom was seriously injured, on their way home from a judo exhibition.
Western officials say that Gagovic, 38, had lived openly in Foca despite his indictment.
NATO has insisted that the French soldiers involved in the operation were not to blame for the death and could not avoid violence because it appeared Gagovic was going to mow them down with his car.
But Western diplomats say the death was mysterious given widespread reports at the time that Gagovic was only weeks away from surrendering to the war crimes tribunal -- a fact, they say, that the French military should have known.
Nikola Kostich, a Serbian-American lawyer from Milwaukee who has represented several defendants before the tribunal, said in an interview that he was contacted by Gagovic early last year and asked for help in arranging his surrender.
Gagovic, he said, had planned to turn himself in later in the winter, shortly after his pregnant wife had given birth.
He said the French military would have been aware of Gagovic's plans since he freely discussed them over the telephone. Western diplomats say the French intelligence services closely monitor phone communications in their sector.
This article appeared in The New York Times, 12 December 1999