Under Arrest

  • Share
  • Read Later
The masked French commandoes in battle dress and night vision goggles swarmed over a muddy Bosnian hillside in the darkest hour of the night. Armed with automatic rifles, they converged on the back door of a two-story stucco house. A dog barked. They planted a wad of plastic explosive beneath the lock, detonated it and stormed in. Ten minutes later Momcilo "Momo" Krajisnik was in custody, flying in a NATO helicopter to Sarajevo and then to the Hague as the most senior official yet to be brought before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. He was still in his pajamas.

"It was a professional job," conceded his son Milos, 21, describing how he and his younger brother were awakened by the hooded intruders and forced belly-down on the carpet while their father's rooms were ransacked. Unlike his colleague and friend, the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, Krajisnik had taken few precautions. He was staying in his parents' unguarded house in the nationalist stronghold of Pale. His arrest nonetheless drew praise. Richard Holbrooke, the outspoken U.S. ambassador to the U.N., proclaimed the capture "one of the most significant events to occur in the Balkans" in the past five years.

Krajisnik was a big fish both during the 1992-95 Bosnian war, when he served as Karadzic's right-hand man, and later, when he took over the leadership of the hard-line Serbian Democratic Party after Karadzic was forced into hiding. Analysts say his capture removes one of Bosnia's most ardent nationalists and political troublemakers, a man who insisted that Muslims, Croats and Serbs could not coexist.

The arrest comes at a propitious time for NATO, which faces mounting criticism for its failure to pick up the 28 publicly accused war criminals still at large. The peacekeeping force, S-FOR, now appears on the verge of a more aggressive campaign aimed at capturing not just foot soldiers of the Bosnian war but senior leaders whose policies led to the deaths of some 150,000 men, women and children. Indicted war criminals like Karadzic, believed to be in hiding in the mountains surrounding Pale, should watch their backs. "The net is closing," said NATO Secretary-General George Robertson after the arrest.

Krajisnik, 55, a former executive with a Sarajevo-based construction conglomerate and part-time pig farmer, never wore a uniform. But as co-founder in 1990 of the hardline Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) he was one of Bosnia's first advocates of a separate, ethnically cleansed Serbian state. At the beginning of the war, he held prominent positions with the Bosnian Serb "security council" and "supreme command." According to one Serb insider familiar with the Pale leadership, Krajisnik and Karadzic made "the perfect team." Karadzcic "had all the big ideas and Krajisnik knew how to get things done."

To Western negotiators, he became known as Mr. No for repeatedly torpedoing the peace process. Jacques Paul Klein, a retired U.S. general who is now U.N. Special Representative in Bosnia, calls him "the most difficult, obstructive xenophobe I have ever worked with." Until his arrest last week, Krajisnik's greatest goal remained the creation of a fully autonomous Serb Republic in Bosnia. "He controlled much of the [Serbian Republic's] economic life, and through this he exerted control in politics," said Gerald Knaus, of the South-East European Initiative, a Berlin-based think-tank.

Last week's 17-page indictment lists in unprecedented detail more than 40 mass killings, beatings, rapes and other crimes carried out by Bosnian Serb forces between July 1991 and December 1992. Prosecutors describe beatings, sexual violence and death threats in detention camps and a practice in which inmates were forced to witness executions of other detainees. These acts were carried out at the behest of the party leadership through so-called "crisis staffs" with the explicit intent of destroying "in whole or in part, the Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat national, ethnical, racial or religious groups," the indictment charges. By the end of 1992 the actions of Krajisnik, Karadzic and others resulted in the "death or forced departure of a significant portion" of Bosnia's non-Serbs, say prosecutors. For those crimes Krajisnik stands accused of genocide, violations of the laws and customs of war, and extermination, among other charges.

In the Hague late last week, Krajisnik pleaded not guilty. His Belgrade-based interim lawyer, Igor Pantelic, said the charges were "vague and politically motivated" and argued that Krajisnik was never in the chain of command. Back in Pale his eldest daughter, Milica, 26, said his family would hire a defense "team" to get her father home. "If patriotism is a war crime, then I am proud of it," she said. "But my father never hurt even a fly."

The absence of a serious backlash against the arrest among hard-line Serbs surprised many observers. Three nights after the French snatched Krajisnik, incendiary rhetoric spilled forth at an election rally for the SDS in Pale. Ljiljana Karadzic, Radovan's wife, made a rare appearance to chants of her husband's nickname, "Raso, Raso." Later she said to Time: "All that my husband and Momcilo Krajisnik are guilty of is defending their nation in the time of war." The arrest, she said, was an attempt to "destroy all Serbs." But at the same rally, SDS party leader Dragan Kalinic said he was counting on vindication at the ballot box. "The arrest will only bring us more votes," he said. Analyst Knaus says Krajisnik's popularity was always paper-thin: "He and other hard-liners were not powerful because they were popular. They were popular because they were powerful."

If the arrest was good for Bosnia, it also helped deflect criticism from French peacekeepers, whom detractors have singled out for not being aggressive enough in their sector and for an alleged pro-Serb bias. Last week Quai d'Orsay officials angrily denied those charges. "We reject accusations [of being pro-Serb] as unfounded, erroneous and at times based on lies," said one Foreign Ministry spokesman, adding that the decision to make the arrest could not have been political because France "does not act on its own in Bosnia, but as part of a larger S-FOR presence." He also said French troops had led more than their share (six) of 19 snatch operations carried out to date.

Nonetheless, five years have elapsed since the Dayton peace accords ended the Bosnian war and last week's promising moves renewed questions about what exactly compels NATO to act when it does. The U.N.'s Klein conceded that the "impression" that the NATO-led force was not willing to take risks in pursuing arrests in the past had cost it credibility. "Now," he said, "we're beginning to get some of that back." Since fear of a political backlash was one of the reasons cited for not going after men like Karadzic, the comparative calm that greeted last week's arrest sends an encouraging signal to NATO officials contemplating another snatch.

For Vesna Ivanovic, 26, those arrests can't come soon enough. A Serbian student who lost her brother to sniper fire during the Sarajevo siege, she believes Krajisnik, Karadzic and their fellow politicians should pay dearly for plunging her country into chaos. Says Ivanovic, "This man changed my life, and tens of thousands of lives, forever." The trial that began last week can't bring those lives back, but it will send a message to future leaders that such policies come with a price.

With reporting by Dejan Anastasijevic/Sarajevo, Lauren Comiteau/the Hague and Bruce Crumley/Paris