The commando-style operation bore all the hallmarks of a dress-rehearsal for the capture of the two principal figures in Bosnia's ethnic carnage - Radovan Karadzic and his army commander, General Ratko Mladic.
One British soldier was shot in the leg as troops, believed to be SAS members, cornered Simo Drljaca, former police chief of Prijedor, who ran murderous "detention" camps at Omarska and Keraterm in 1992.
An army spokesman in Banja Luka, where British troops serving under Nato's S-For (Stabilisation Force) are based, said the operation began yesterday at 9.30am. One group detained Milan Kovacevic, Drljaca's underling in the events of 1992, at the hospital of which he is director. While Kovacevic surrendered peacefully, the simultaneous move against Drljaca in another part of Prijedor ended in bloodshed.
"When S-For approached him and challenged him he opened fire," the spokesman said. "One of our soldiers was wounded. [Drljaca] was then killed when fire was returned in self-defence."
Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said: "I'm very proud of the performance of the British forces in this operation. They have shown considerable courage."
Drljaca inspired terror among Bosnia's Muslims in the war that broke out in spring 1992. A leading figure in Karadzic's ultra-nationalist Serb SDS party, he was given the key task of clearing out north-west Bosnia's non-Serb majority in April 1992, an operation he conducted successfully and with ruthless zeal. While several hundred thousand Muslims and Croats fled, thousands who failed to make it were rounded up and held at Keraterm and Omarska. When Western television cameras finally entered the camps in August 1992, releasing pictures of skeletal inmates that shocked the world, Drljaca told them: "Why are they so thin? It's Ramadan! They're all fasting."
Yesterday George Robertson, the Defence Secretary, told MPs that Drljaca may have been involved in some of the most horrific crimes committed there: there were claims that guards committed mass rapes of women, while men held there had claimed they had been forced to bite off other male prisoners' genitals for the amusement of their captors.
Last night Downing Street played down the political implications for Britain of the shootings, saying they were part of a more pro-active international stance rather than an indication that the government's policy would be tougher than the Tories'. Mr Robertson said the action had been sanctioned at the highest levels in Nato and that it had the specific authority of Javier Solana, secretary-general of the alliance, General George Joulwan, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, and Nato's ruling North Atlantic Council.
But the move against a man of Drljaca's standing undoubtedly marks a seismic shift by the international community from passive observation to actively seeking out war-crimes suspects. UN and Nato forces in former Yugoslavia have had a mandate to arrest suspects since the 1995 US-brokered Dayton agreement but until recently declined to act on it.
Yesterday's raid is a sign that the big powers involved in Bosnian peace- keeping - Britain, France and the US - have lost patience with a policy that left those responsible for the worst killings still in de facto control of the Bosnian Serb mini-state. "This is an indication ...that we intend business," said Mr Robertson, "and none of these people will sleep any sounder in their beds as a result of this action. I wonder how they can sleep in bed at night at all."
Neither Drljaca nor Kovacevic were on the published list of indicted war-crimes suspects. But the Hague tribunal, under its new Canadian Chief Prosecutor, Louise Arbour, has drawn up - and urged peacekeepers to act on - a new and secret list of suspects.
Last night Kovacevic was flown from Bosnia and taken in a heavily guarded convoy to the side entrance of a Hague prison which houses the international tribunal's 24-cell block.
The tribunal's new, tough stance was endorsed at this week's Nato summit in Madrid. Tony Blair and President Bill Clinton are believed to have discussed the issue at the summit, and on Wednesday Mr Clinton and Gen Joulwan issued strong statement against Karadzic.
"Our mandate is to arrest people who have been accused of war crimes and turn them over for trial," Mr Clinton said. The orders for the arrest of Drljaca and Kovacevic were almost certainly issued immediately after the summit.Reuse content