General Momir Talic, chief of staff of the Bosnian Serbian army and a corps commander during the 1992-95 war, was seized by Austrian police, apparently unaware that his name featured on the list of "closed" or secret indictments drawn up by the War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
He is the most senior army figure yet detained on war crimes charges, a close collaborator of the Bosnian Serbs' wartime leader, Radovan Karadzic, and his military commander, Ratko Mladic - themselves both under indictment - and a prime mover in the ethnic cleansing in Serb-controlled areas of Bosnia. The arrest was carried out in the august surrounds of Austria's National Defence Academy where General Talic was attending a conference organised - with no small touch of irony - by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), primarily responsible for nursing the states of the former Yugoslavia towards a functioning democracy.
Reaction to the news last night in the Bosnian Serb republic of Srpska was predictably furious, amid claims that the hospitality offered by the Western-sponsored seminar had been abused. Some Bosnian Serbs were warning of mass revolt, though in practical terms there is little they can do in the face of the overwhelming military superiority of Nato forces in the S-For peacekeeping force in Bosnia. Demanding General Talic's immediate release, the republic's vice-president, Mirko Sarovic, described the arrest as a "humiliation" of his state, which only underscored the urgency of abolishing the system of sealed indictments, designed to avoid tipping off suspects that they were liable to be taken in. That will not happen.
As soon as his identity was established and the arrest warrent formally served, General Talic was due to be transferred to The Hague. There, he is likely to be put on trial alongside the former Bosnian Serb deputy prime minister, Radoslav Brdjanin, who was captured last month in Bosnia by S-For troops.
Both men are accused of crimes against humanity, on the grounds they planned and carried out the forced expulsion of more than 100,000 Muslims and Croats from the Prijedor region of north-western Bosnia in 1992. If convicted, they could be jailed for life.
But the fate of General Talic will be noted far beyond the Balkans and can only reinforce the so-called "Pinochet Syndrome" - the growing fear of dictators and their henchmen with dark human rights records to stray outside their country, and risk being hauled before a foreign tribunal. The former Chilean president's long involuntary sojourn in Britain is the most vivid case of its type.Reuse content