'Find the fugitives', urges UN prosecutor as she steps down

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Carla del Ponte, the feisty United Nations official who made it her eight-year mission to bring Balkan war criminals to justice, stepped down from her post as chief prosecutor at the International War Crimes Tribunal yesterday, expressing anger that two of her three main targets remained at large. She urged the international community not to let the former Bosnian-Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, General Ratko Mladic, off the hook. Both are wanted on charges of genocide for their roles in the war which tore the Balkan nations apart in the 1990s.

"The fact that [they] are still at large is a stain on our work, a stain on all these great achievements," Ms Del Ponte, 60, told reporters at a farewell news conference in The Hague.

The Swiss lawyer and self-confessed workaholic often spoke of the three "wanted" posters she had on her office wall. But while she chose to focus yesterday on the two suspects that at least for now got away, the undoubted highlight of her tenure was bringing the third, the former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic, into the dock.

Mr Milosevic was the first ex-head of state to face international justice but his death in custody in March 2006 deprived Ms Del Ponte of her ultimate victory a guilty conviction. Some critics have laid the blame at her door, arguing that her dogged determination to pursue Mr Milosevic on every possible count meant that his trial dragged on unnecessarily for more than four years.

Ms Del Ponte, whose nicknames include "New Gestapo", has left the tribunal to become the Swiss ambassador to Argentina, but diplomacy has not been the hallmark of her days as a prosecutor.

"She was a real success but not a saint," said Richard Dicker, of Human Rights Watch, who has followed her career. "She blazed new ground. She was refreshingly outspoken and fearless in making those obstructing justice uncomfortable, but sometimes she shot herself in the foot with her passion."

Last year, Ms Del Ponte was forced to cut short her opening statement in the trial of five officers accused of leading the massacre of 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica. It may have been the worst atrocity on European soil since the Second World War, but defence lawyers claimed Ms Del Ponte's remarks were "too emotive".

During one of her 20 personal trips to Belgrade, she slammed down her fist as she addressed the Serb parliament and shouted: "I want my fugitives!"

That was essentially the message she delivered yesterday, saying: "The tribunal must not close its doors until all remaining fugitives are brought to justice." It is, however, due to close in 2010. General Mladic, meanwhile, is believed to be hiding in Serbia.

Ms Del Ponte hinted that diplomatic pressure on Belgrade to extradite him could be overshadowed by the expected declaration of independence by Kosovo next year. "My biggest fear today is that political issues are taking priority over international justice," she said.

Serge Brammertz, the experienced Belgian prosecutor leading the investigation into the 2005 killing of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, will succeed Ms Del Ponte next year.

The search for justice

Slobodan Milosevic

The Yugoslav president, indicted in May 1999, became the first sitting head of state to be charged with war crimes and was arrested in 2001. He was accused of war crimes in Kosovo, violating the laws and conventions of war in Croatia, and genocide in Bosnia. He refused to enter a plea, defended himself and questioned the legitimacy of the tribunal, which opened in February 2002. Delayed by his health problems, the prosecution case took two years. Milosevic died of a heart attack in March 2006 before his trial was over.

Ratko Mladic

As Serbia's chief-of-staff during the 1992-95 war with Bosnia, Mladic was indicted in July 1995 for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the massacre of at least 7,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995. He disappeared after the arrest of Milosevic and, while some of his former aides have since surrendered to the UN tribunal, his whereabouts remain a mystery. Sightings have placed him everywhere from Moscow to Athens and Belgrade.

Radovan Karadzic

Jointly indicted with Mladic in 1995 for the Srebrenica massacre, Karadzic was also indicted for the shelling of Sarajevo, and for the use of 284 UN peacekeepers as human shields. Karadzic denied the charges but was forced to step down as president of the Serbian Democratic Party. He went into hiding, protected by paramilitaries. Despite mounting international pressure for his arrest, he published a book in 2004 entitled Miraculous Chronicles Of The Night. It tells the story of a Yugoslav man jailed by mistake.