Serbs hold their fire over extradited officers

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The Independent Online




The Bosnian Serb leadership, angered and humilitated by the extradition of two senior officers for questioning by the UN war crimes tribunal, yet loath to burn its bridges with the Dayton deal, yesterday announced a boycott of meetings with some international organisations but otherwise held its fire.

Nato officials, fearful of a violent reaction from the Serb military, tightened security and withdrew liaison officers from Pale, the Bosnian Serb headquarters. But a spokesman said contacts with senior Serb officers, banned last week by General Ratko Mladic, the Serb commander also indicted for war crimes, were improving.

No official response had been agreed in Pale by yesterday evening, but the Minister for Information said the government had called an urgent session for last night. He hoped Radovan Karadzic, the Serbs' civilian leader also indicted for war crimes, would attend.

The extradition aboard a Nato plane from Sarajevo to The Hague of General Djordje Djukic and Colonel Aleksa Krsmanovic, arrested by the Muslim-led government last month on suspicion of war crimes, was "very, very dangerous", Dragan Bozanic said.

"We are going to continue with the implementation of the peace agreement, we are going to have contacts with I-For [Nato's Implementation Force]," he added. "But if we see such unilateral actions from one side with the help of international forces - I see Nato and I-For among those international forces - it's a very dangerous situation and I don't know what might happen."

It is not clear, however, what the Serbs can do; their boycott of meetings on arms control and the forthcoming elections harms only themselves, and they are wary of actions that might derail the peace process.

"Nobody normal wants to fight any more," said the commander of a Serb military unit. "If you and I are negotiating, and you are 10 times stronger, what can I do?" Still, he did not rule out violence. "It would be easy to ambush I-For and kill 50 men, but it's not in our interest ... but I- For should be careful not to go too far.''

Zeljko Vidovic, a young man from northern Bosnia, paused during a game of pool in a cafe in Pale, and said: "People are embittered about the extradition." But would the Serbs be willing to continue the peace process? "Probably." Dragan Petrovic, another player, added bluntly: "There is very little we can do. We are the losers here."

In Bucharest, the US Assistant Secretary of State, Richard Holbrooke, architect of the Dayton agreement, said the two extradited Serb officers could be questioned about the suspected massacre of 3,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica. He described the Bosnian Serb capture of Srebrenica last July as a "huge war crime".

Mr Holbrooke announced new "rules of the road" about the treatment of suspected war criminals. In future they may be detained only on the recommendation of the Hague tribunal. That means the Bosnian government's seizure of the two Serbs may not be repeated.

Any side wishing to issue a warrant for the arrest of a suspect must gain the tribunal's assent if it wants co-operation by I-For and the tribunal. The two Serb officers flown to the Hague were not on the list of 52 suspects indicted by the war crimes tribunal.

Mr Holbrooke made it clear Washington was determined to see war criminals brought to justice. "It was non-negotiable before Dayton, it was non-neg- otiable after Dayton and it's non-negotiable now," he said.

Asked whether the two officers could have been involved in the Srebrenica killings, Mr Holbrooke stressed that the investigation was at this stage strictly confidential. After briefing Romanian leaders on the Bosnian peace process, Mr Holbrooke flew to Zagreb for talks with Croatia's Franjo Tudjman, aimed at easing Croat objections to plans to unite the the Bosnian city of Mostar. "If the [Muslim-Croat] federation [in Bosnia] falls apart, there will be a disaster," he said.