Bosnian war criminal jailed for ethnic cleansing wants to be town mayor to 'apologise'

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Simo Zaric is a Bosnian mayoral candidate with a vision of his home town as a place where Serbs, Croats and Muslims can live in harmony, building a future for a war-torn community.

Simo Zaric is a Bosnian mayoral candidate with a vision of his home town as a place where Serbs, Croats and Muslims can live in harmony, building a future for a war-torn community.

What sets his bid apart, however, is the fact that he is a former intelligence officer for Bosnian Serbs and served a six-year jail sentence in The Hague for ethnically cleansing the place he now plans to run - the north-western Bosnian town of Bosanski Samac.

But in spite of his conviction for war crimes, which was handed down at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague in October 2003, Mr Zaric is confident he will triumph over his four challengers when the results of Saturday's election come in.

Mr Zaric, a vigorous man in his early fifties, sits in his son's café in town and reflects on his bid over coffee. He has campaigned on the need to rebuild a multi-ethnic Samac, stressing the need to "apologise" to victims of the war, and calling on them to return.

Bosanki Samac was thoroughly "cleansed" of its 33,000 Croats and Muslims between 1991 and 1993 and only around 1,600 refugees have since come home - too few to have any serious voting power in the electorate of 24,000.

But Mr Zaric believes he could kick-start the economy, which has been all but extinct for a decade. "I feel capable of getting this municipality out of its crisis," he said, describing it as "a garbage dump".

Nine years after the end of the war, Bosanski Samac is sunk in squalor. Its streets are narrow and filled with potholes, which probably fuel the main economic activity here - car-repair workshops that specialise in patching up exhaust pipes, and roadside restaurants serving roasted lamb to those waiting for their cars to be fixed. Bringing in foreign investment, said Mr Zaric, is the only way to improve life. But when asked if overseas investors might think twice about putting their money into a town led by a convicted war criminal, he waved disparagingly. "I know my worth as a man," he said. "If I'd done anything wrong it wouldn't cross my mind to stick my nose in politics. And if I were guilty - if I were - I have done my time."

Mr Zaric surrendered willingly to The Hague in 1998, saying it was the best way to prove his innocence. But the court concluded he had known of the torture suffered by prisoners during the war - he had interrogated many and heard their complaints. He was sentenced to six years as "an aider and abetter of persecutions". Mr Zaric was released early, in January this year.

Beth Kampschror is a Sarajevo-based contributor for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting

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