Charles Crawford: Bosnia will be the real loser in this messy legal battle

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The Independent Online

Once more, the London courts may find themselves making far-reaching legal rulings with momentous political implications for other countries. In 1998, the alleged crimes of Augusto Pinochet became the focus of the courts right up to the House of Lords when the former Chilean dictator was arrested in London.

Now we face the startling possibility that charges laid by Serbia against Ejup Ganic and the events of the Dobrovoljacka Street killings in Sarajevo in 1992 will turn into another protracted, bitter Pinochet-esque legal drama. A magnificent opportunity for top lawyers, but not a process likely to promote peace and reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia.

In April 1992, Bosnia and Herzegovina proclaimed itself independent of what remained of Yugoslavia. This forced to the fore the status of Yugoslav military forces loyal to Belgrade but still on Bosnia's territory.

A violent lunge by the Yugoslav Army (JNA) aimed at seizing key Sarajevo buildings was beaten back. The JNA barracks in Sarajevo were then surrounded by Bosnian forces on 2 May. Meanwhile, Bosniac leader Alija Izetbegovic was captured by JNA soldiers at Sarajevo airport. The UN negotiated an arrangement with the Bosnian leadership – including Presidency member Ganic himself in Izetbegovic's absence – to free Izetbegovic in return for safe passage by the JNA soldiers out of Sarajevo.

It all went wrong. Bosniac forces attacked the JNA convoy – led by UN personnel flying UN flags – at point-blank range, reportedly killing a score or more (the numbers of casualties are hotly disputed). Izetbegovic escaped.

This action from the start was claimed by the Serbs to be the highest perfidy. Ejup Ganic, one of the most "Western" and indeed "Yugoslav" of the Bosniac leadership, was accused by the Serbs for ordering or at least presiding over the killings. He denied responsibility.

In the countless subsequent horrors of the Bosnian conflict culminating in the Srebrenica massacre, this episode has faded from memory in Western capitals. But Serbs in Bosnia and Serbia have not forgotten Dobrovoljacka Street.

Political tensions between Bosnia and Serbia are running high. Serbia commendably has sent to the Hague Tribunal an impressive number of its former political and military leaders. But General Mladic, the Serb accused of the worst crimes of all, is still at large. Until he faces justice, Serbia's moral case for winning Mr Ganic's extradition hovers just above Absolute Zero.

That said, the Bosniacs too have shown themselves unable and unwilling to confront massacres committed by their side. Mr Ganic will have all the resources he needs to fight extradition. Belgrade too will strive to insist that he be handed over.

If the issue is not resolved quickly a long and brutal legal battle will ensue. Just what neither Bosnia nor Serbia need.

Charles Crawford served as British Ambassador in Sarajevo from 1996-98 and then in Belgrade from 2001-2003. He has written extensively about former Yugoslavia on his website