Nato on alert as Mladic tries to cut contact

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The Independent Online
NATO stepped up security for its troops yesterday, after General Ratko Mladic ordered a freeze on all contacts with the alliance. There was little sign however, that the Bosnian Serb commander's order was being respected.

Gen Mladic has severed ties with I-For until the Nato peace implementation force wins the release of 10 Bosnian Serb soldiers, including a general, held by the government as war crimes suspects. But Nato officials said most contacts with their Serb counterparts were continuing as normal. They suggested that there may be a split between Gen Mladic - an indicted war criminal shunned by Nato - and the Serb civilian leadership and some Serb officers.

There have been no direct threats from the Serbs, but Nato is guarding against the possibility of hostage-taking.

"Whenever there's any indication that the threat may increase then we will take measures to prevent people from being overexposed. I think we're doing that," Captain Leonard Capello told reporters in Sarajevo. "We're not circling the wagons per se, we're trying to meet [the Serb military] and progress."

It seems that Gen Mladic and his civilian counter-part, Radovan Karadzic, isolated by I-For, may be losing the grip on power they enjoyed during the war. It is becoming clear that neither man will hold any significant position in a post-war Bosnia, while their nominal subordinates are jostling for space in the future leadership.

"[Karadzic] is out of it," a Bosnian Serb official said in Pale. "He bears prime responsibility [for losing the war] ... and the same holds true for Mladic." Nato officials, eager to encourage a more pragmatic leadership, are trying to tease senior Serbs away from the Mladic line. Judging by the confused response to the general's order, the monolithic statelet is fragmenting as each looks to his own future.

Lt-Gen Sir Michael Walker, the Nato army commander, spoke by telephone on Friday to General Zdravko Tolimir, a senior Serb officer, but officials said it was unclear from the conversation whether Gen Tolimir was holding to his leader's line or not. The Bosnian Serb prime minister, Rajko Kasagic, has said he will continue to meet I-For. Colonel John Kirkwood said at the Nato briefing yesterday: "There were conciliatory remarks last night on the political side. We're receiving mixed messages at the unit level. It's spotty but we're continuing on with the job."

A source in Pale said Gen Mladic's order had discomfited the civilian side but contacts with I-For would continue - albeit out of the eye of an unhappy Serb public. "They don't want war," he said firmly. "But the military issued the orders and everyone has to go along with it." While paying lip-service to the general's orders, business would continue as usual.