General Djordje Djukic, the senior logistician for the Bosnian Serb army and the man who oversaw all arms shipments from the former Yugoslavia, and his subordinate Colonel Aleksa Krsmanovic were taken from prison in Sarajevo yesterday evening and flown to The Hague for investigations.
The Bosnian government, which arrested the two after they took a wrong turn and crossed the front line on 30 January, has given no details of allegations against the men, saying only they were suspected of killing civilians.
The Serb military commander, General Ratko Mladic, accused of genocide by the tribunal, responded by ordering his troops to sever ties with Nato. Officials of I-For were braced for a violent response and remained on the heightened state of alert ordered last week. Some observers suggested the removal of the two men might lessen tensions but the despatch of such senior Serb officers to The Hague by Nato may prove hard to swallow, even for moderate Serbs.
Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy who bullied the factions into signing the Dayton peace deal and was sent to the region to defuse the crisis, left Sarajevo yesterday on an optimistic note - before the prisoners' transfer. He said the mood ought to soften following a change in government policy on the detention of war criminals: Sarajevo has agreed to submit a list of names to the international war crimes tribunal and arrest only those sought by the tribunal. There are 51 names on the list, but the two officers sent to The Hague yesterday are not among them.
Mr Holbrooke is known to have discussed the likely extradition of Gen Djukic and Col Krsmanovic with President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia on Sunday in Belgrade, but does not seem to have won his approval. Mr Milosevic said the detentions were "dangerous" after talks with the American.
Reporters outside the jail in Sarajevo yesterday saw the two escorted out by Nato troops to the Olympic ice rink at Zetra, from where they were flown by helicopter to Sarajevo airport. They were flown to The Hague in a transport plane by I-For, at the request of the tribunal.
After his departure from the region, Mr Holbrooke distanced himself from the two men's fate. "As for the general and the colonel who were detained, that is a separate matter being handled by the war crimes tribunal," he said.