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Catch me if you can

Neil Barnett says that The Hague's attempt to track down Radovan Karadzic has been inept and counterproductive

6 September 2003

12:00 AM

6 September 2003

12:00 AM

Will Osama and Saddam ever be found? If they fare as well as the Bosnian Serb mass murderers Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, perhaps not. In July the desperate duo celebrated eight years on the run from indictments by The Hague Tribunal, and the smart money has them at large a while longer. Mladic seems to have vanished, but the hunt for Karadzic goes on. It goes without saying that no one is quite sure where the bouffant-haired psychiatrist and cod poet is, but best guesses have him roving the remoter parts of Republika Srpska (the Serbian bit of Bosnia) and Montenegro.

The hunt drags on under the aegis of Carla del Ponte, The Hague’s Swiss-born chief prosecutor, and a junta of liberal lawyers and bureaucrats that makes a colander look watertight, backed by teams of clucking politicians. Karadzic, however, is protected by a network of ultra-nationalist peasants, gangsters and Orthodox clergy, which acts like a black hole for information: ‘Everything comes in, and nothing comes out,’ says one veteran Balkan watcher. The Hague regularly re-states its great and redoubled determination to catch Karadzic, which would be amusing if the whole process weren’t so thoroughly drenched in blood.

Karadzic was the prime architect of the Srebrenica massacre, in which as many as 6,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed under the noses of French generals and Dutch soldiers. The Hague was meant to provide justice for the victims. To its credit it has Slobbo in the dock, and earlier this month the suspected war criminal Major Veselin Sljivancanin ended several years on the run after he was arrested by Serbian interior ministry commandos. But as for getting its own scalps, The Hague is next to useless.


In the Through-the-Looking-Glass world of Karadzic-hunting, failure is no longer a bar to success. Last week Nato’s Stabilisation Force (SFOR) troops besieged the properties of Karadzic’s wife and daughter, as well as several other promising spots in the Bosnian Serb capital, Pale, in the hope of finding him. After two days they gave up and went home, but an SFOR spokesman revealed that they had collected ‘unspecified information’ and, ‘while I cannot divulge details of the results of these operations, I can tell you that they were successful in their aim …to gather information and monitor the local situation and potential efforts of persons conducting activities that impede the progress and development of Bosnia and Herzegovina. War crimes fugitives fall in that category.’ This sort of flannel is not well received by the local Bosnian Muslims, who can’t decide if these pantomimes are simply a case of incompetence or, more gravely, a lack of will. A piece in the Sarajevo newspaper Oslobodjenje dryly observed that it was ‘another farce …the operation is reminiscent of top US-produced action films …but Bosnia is not America. The bad guys are still in good shape here and engaged in anti-Dayton activities.’ Which is hard to argue with.

Consider another failed raid launched by SFOR troops in Bosnia in March last year. A French captain had thoughtfully telephoned a Bosnian Serb policeman to let him know Karadzic was in danger, unaware that his conversation was being listened to by spooks from other SFOR countries. According to transcripts published in the Times, the officer told the policeman, ‘You should pay attention to Foca [where Karadzic was believed to be hiding]’, while the arrest force was en route in helicopters, thus allowing him to escape. Back in 1998 a Major Herve Gourmillon was rumbled giving Karadzic’s network advance warning of SFOR plans, and recalled to France. Vive la fraternité.

But even without French help, The Hague is quite capable of not catching Karadzic on its own. Earlier this year, in one of her legendary strokes of originality, del Ponte handed over intelligence on Karadzic’s whereabouts to the Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic. ‘Milo’, as he is affectionately known in criminal circles, is under investigation by judges in Naples and Bari for directing a huge cigarette-smuggling ring in partnership with the Italian Mafia. His government also faces an OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) and Council of Europe investigation for nobbling a prosecution of alleged human traffickers high up in the government, after the escape of a Moldovan prostitute from a brothel in the capital, Podgorica. This was the man del Ponte decided to share her secrets with, apparently including the suggestion that Karadzic was hiding in remote Orthodox monasteries.

Given The Hague’s risible record in investigation and arrest of fugitives, del Ponte’s secret weapon is to hector co-operative leaders loudly, publicly and repeatedly. She had many meetings with the late Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic in which she repeated her demands for Karadzic, Mladic and others to be caught. After his assassination, del Ponte revealed that in February Djindjic had told her, ‘They’re going to kill me’, during a conversation about reform and catching war criminals. She went on, ‘He knew very well that the fight against organised crime necessarily includes the arrest of war criminals…. he was aware of the links between the old paramilitary structures and the Mafia.’ But this was no epiphanic moment of self-awareness – she failed to make the simple link between her indiscriminate handbag-swinging style and the death of Djindjic. Put simply, she lacks any political sensitivity, and her heckling public demands for arrests serve only to undermine co-operative reformers like Djindjic.

Djindjic’s widow vetoed del Ponte going to the funeral, and when she announced that she’d like to come anyway, the Serbs told her that her plane would not be allowed to land in Belgrade.

The Balkan watcher despairs that Karadzic is still at large. ‘If everyone puts their heads together, it can’t be so hard to find one man living in a country the size of Bosnia,’ he says. Del Ponte is up for re-election as chief prosecutor, and will probably succeed, according to sources in The Hague. Given the thousand mea culpas issued by the same fops over Srebrenica, it’s sobering to see that there are no real attempts being made to catch Karadzic, the principal architect of the massacre. The Hague tribunal springs from a noble idea, but the sorry truth is that as hundreds of millions of pounds are flushed down the lavatory, the wretched people of the Balkans find no justice, and, as ever, semi-educated bureaucrats grow fat on their own incompetence.


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