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In Bosnia, a War Crimes Impasse
By John Pomfret and Lee Hockstader
Bralo is wanted for war crimes by the international tribunal for the former Yugoslavia: He is charged with being second in command of the Jokers, a pack of Croat irregulars who entered a Muslim village before dawn on April 19, 1993, and slaughtered 107 people. That massacre helped touch off the 1993-94 war between Croats and Muslims in central Bosnia. Bosnian war crimes officials also suspect him of repeatedly raping a Muslim woman and killing Muslim children.
Bralo is no different from dozens of alleged war criminals who numb themselves with drink in Bosnia's drab towns and villages two years after international pressure silenced guns in that Balkan land. What makes the former steelyard worker unusual is what happened one day last summer.
On the evening of July 14, Bralo walked to a checkpoint manned by NATO peacekeeping troops and tried to surrender. He told Dutch troops at the checkpoint he was ready to hand himself over to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague and that he would testify against a Croatian army general who is currently on trial on war crimes charges, NATO and tribunal sources said. But the Dutch soldiers did not arrest Bralo; they took his address. In a communications bungle, the war crimes tribunal had failed to inform NATO that Bralo was a wanted man. Once NATO found out, U.S. Army generals blocked pleas from the tribunal to pick him up, tribunal sources said.
The story of Miroslav Bralo is a thumbnail sketch of the problems bedeviling the first war crimes tribunal since the Nuremberg court at the end of World War II. It is the clearest indication to date of a gap between NATO's stated policy -- that its soldiers will arrest suspected war criminals if they run across them -- and the reality in which 31,000 NATO troops, armed with tanks, helicopter gunships and other heavy weaponry, take pains to avoid men sought by The Hague.
In the view of many Western officials, NATO's reluctance to move against men charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and other wartime atrocities is undermining efforts to move the peace process in Bosnia forward.
Nearly every prominent Western diplomat in Bosnia has stated that as long as the most infamous war crimes suspects continue to operate freely and wield influence in Bosnia, refugees will be too afraid to return to their prewar homes and hard-liners will continue to obstruct peace efforts, believing the West too timid to take firm action. Many say NATO should shoulder the burden for making the arrests, even if it entails risks for soldiers.
"We firmly believe that as long as criminals against humanity . . . are at large, there is not going to be a normal life in [Bosnia], not only for rule of law reasons but also because of their influence in politics and economy in the country," Carlos Westendorp, the chief Western mediator in Bosnia, said at a news conference last month. "They are contaminating the atmosphere of the country. They have to go to The Hague."
But NATO officials disagree with their civilian counterparts on the importance of arresting those charged with the most heinous war crimes.
At the same news conference where Westendorp spoke, for example, Gen. Philippe Mansuy, the French deputy commander of the NATO-led force in Bosnia, declined to reply when asked if the failure to apprehend war crimes suspects was slowing progress toward peace. NATO "is not that well placed to answer the . . . question," he said.
Such a "fundamental disagreement" -- a term used by both tribunal and NATO officials -- goes to the question of whether the NATO-led force has the responsibility to arrest war criminals. The tribunal's chief justice, Louise Arbour, has made it clear she believes NATO does have that mandate. NATO officials say it does not, arguing that militaries should fight wars, not engage in police work.
The conflict has bred a fractious relationship between the tribunal and the two-year-old NATO-led mission in Bosnia. The relationship has worsened since Arbour took office in October 1996, replacing the South African jurist Richard Goldstone. U.S. Army Gen. George Joulwan, then NATO's commander, routinely "patronized" Arbour, placing her during one NATO conference at the back of the room and at other times talking to her as if she was a "little girl," a U.S. official said. Things have improved, but only slightly, since Gen. Wesley Clark took command of NATO, the official said.
Both the tribunal and NATO say they share the goal of bringing peace and justice to Bosnia. But throughout the reporting of this article, NATO and U.S. officials routinely accused tribunal officials of lying, and vice versa. They also contradicted each other at almost every turn.
A senior U.S. official, for example, described the failure to arrest Bralo as "a minor blip on the screen." A tribunal investigator countered that it was "part of a pattern of giving lip service to the idea of prosecuting war crimes but not following up with concrete help. When push comes to shove, NATO runs into a corner and cries."
Since it was founded by the U.N. Security Council in 1993, the tribunal has publicly indicted 78 suspects; an undetermined number of others, including Bralo, have been secretly indicted. But only 20 men are in custody -- and only one of them was captured by NATO troops. The most notorious of the war crimes suspects, former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic and his wartime military commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic, remain at large.
During its 24-month deployment to Bosnia, NATO has mounted one known operation against alleged war criminals. On July 10, British special forces fatally shot a senior Bosnian Serb police officer and arrested another Serb, both of them wanted on war crimes charges.
Those events triggered a wave of threats and incidents directed at NATO troops and Western civilian organizations in Bosnia, including bombings and, in one instance, a sickle attack on an American identified as a soldier. Although no one was seriously injured and the incidents subsided after a couple of weeks, some officials believe they left NATO too wary of retribution to take further action against other war crimes suspects.
NATO officials, for their part, complain that the tribunal is disorganized and poorly run.
The tribunal, for example, charged Bralo in a secret indictment in 1996. The tribunal came up with the idea of secret indictments to avoid tipping off war crimes suspects and thus increasing the probability of their arrest. But the tribunal has neglected to inform NATO about some of its secret indictments, leaving the military operation in the dark, its deputy prosecutor Graham Blewitt acknowledged in an interview.
Blewitt, while declining to comment directly on the Bralo case, strongly intimated that NATO could not be blamed for not knowing that Bralo was a wanted man.
Bralo was one of several men who approached NATO forces after British troops shot and killed Simo Drljaca, the Serb police chief of the northern Bosnian town of Prijedor on July 10. Drljaca, like Bralo, was the subject of a secret indictment.
"A lot of people thought they might be on a list somewhere," said a NATO source. "Some of the smaller fry were also worried that the bigger fry wouldn't want them around to testify. So people were asking us, `Hey, am I on a list somewhere?' "
Bralo was already known to NATO in Bosnia, tribunal sources said. Last spring, the tribunal spent much effort convincing NATO to remove land mines from an area in central Bosnia where Bralo was believed to have buried some of his victims: two families, including small children.
One of the men who opposed that dig was U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Jack Nix, a senior operations officer in the NATO-led force, according to tribunal sources. Nix told tribunal officials he was against the mine-removal effort because it constitutes mission creep -- a dangerous expansion of NATO's responsibilities in Bosnia to include police work. However, a British general overruled Nix's opposition, and the mines were removed from the road, sources said. No bodies were found.
The day after Bralo showed up at the Dutch checkpoint in Vitez, a NATO source said, Nix was made aware of the incident. The NATO source said NATO officers ran Bralo's name past tribunal officials in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, and were told that "he was not on any list." But after asking The Hague, NATO determined that Bralo was wanted. The tribunal then contacted NATO and asked NATO to go to his house and pick him up.
Difficult negotiations ensued between Nix and Frank Dutton, a former South African police officer who heads the tribunal's office in Sarajevo. Dutton requested a NATO escort to Bralo's house; Nix turned him down and instead kept the Dutch checkpoint in Vitez for another week, hoping Bralo would reappear, tribunal sources said. Dutton went alone to the house but Bralo was not there.
Dutch forces in Bosnia then informed the NATO chain-of-command that they were willing to launch an operation to grab Bralo, Western sources said. Nix turned it down, saying NATO's mandate in Bosnia did not allow it to undertake such operations, sources said.
In meetings with Dutton, Nix issued a series of stringent conditions under which NATO troops would participate in Bralo's arrest, according to an investigation by the New York-based Human Rights Watch. One of his conditions stated that a tribunal official had to be present if Bralo turned himself in. Tribunal sources said that condition clearly violated NATO's stated policy that its soldiers would detain war criminals during the normal course of their duties. NATO officials disputed the tribunal's version of events, saying Nix never issued such conditions.
"We have reviewed the circumstances and we are completely satisfied that Gen. Nix's actions are entirely appropriate in maintaining his mission and supporting the [NATO force's] mandate regarding persons indicted for war crimes," said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Stephanie Hoehne, a NATO spokeswoman in Brussels. Nix did not return calls to his office in Italy.
At The Hague, Blewitt declined to comment on the tribunal's view of Nix's role in the Bralo affair. In general, however, he acknowledged "some frustration on our part about NATO's failure to arrest indicted war criminals."
At Caffe 10, Bralo's buddies do not understand the fuss about their friend. They recounted that he never spends the night in the same place and moves like hunted prey, running, perhaps, from both The Hague and his old officers who could be hurt by any testimony. The other day, when he heard a journalist was looking for him, he got up and left the bar immediately.
"There's nothing special about Bralo," said Caffe 10's bartender, who served under him during the war. "Everyone you see here has killed someone."
Hockstader reported from Vitez, Bosnia; Pomfret from Washington.
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