PALE, Bosnia-Hercegovina – Troops tried and failed for a third time to arrest wanted Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic in a pre-dawn swoop in which a priest and his son were critically injured.
“We conducted a focused international operation in Pale to detain Radovan Karadzic … We did not find him,” said Dave Sullivan, spokesman for the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR).
Karadzic has evaded capture since being indicted by the UN war crimes tribunal on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity despite a five-million-dollar (3.9 million euros) reward offered by the US State Department for information leading to his arrest.
“He can run, but he cannot hide forever. The noose is tightening around his neck,” Sullivan said.
Thursday’s botched raid sparked protests by some 2,000 angry Bosnian Serbs, including senior government officials, who gathered in the courtyard of an Orthodox church in Pale chanting “fascists”.
The protestors carried banners that read: “Heads up Serb people,” “Nobody will arrest a Serb” and “With trust in God, for salvation of our people”.
About 40 British and US troops led the raid on Karadzic’s former stronghold of Pale shortly after midnight when an SFOR helicopter landed in the courtyard of an Orthodox church that was also home to priest Jeremija Starovlah.
Witnesses said two civilian vans and an ice-cream truck full of SFOR soldiers also drove into the churchyard. Troops used “blast devices” while entering the house to “avoid the use of lethal weapons,” Sullivan said.
Starovlah and his 28-year-old son Aleksandar, both injured by the blast, were transported by SFOR to a hospital in the northern town of Tuzla where they underwent surgery and were on life-support machines.
SFOR said it regretted the civilian casualties, but vowed not to stop its hunt for Karadzic who has evaded capture since being indicted by the UN war crimes tribunal.
“These operations would not take place if the local authorities … (fulfilled) their responsibility” to apprehend war crimes suspects, Sullivan said.
Bosnia’s top international representative, Paddy Ashdown, echoed the view reminding that Bosnian Serbs have yet to arrest a single war crimes suspect.
“I expect all those reacting to these events to reflect on that fact,” he said.
However, analysts warned that the SFOR operation in Pale could increase the tensions between Bosnian Serbs and the international community.
“It is of paramount importance that SFOR explain as soon as possible the reasons for injuring the priest and his son,” Antonio Prlenda, a military analyst with Oslobodjenje daily newspaper, told AFP.
“Any delays could lead to an escalation of the situation in the political arena, but also on the streets of Bosnian Serb towns.”
The charges against Karadzic and Mladic relate in particular to the three-and-a-half-year-long siege of Sarajevo, which killed some 10,000 civilians.
Karadzic’s charges also include the 1995 massacre of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys in the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica.
Peacekeepers raided Pale in January in a bid to arrest Karadzic but failed to find him.
SFOR also tried to arrest him in an operation that straddled February and March 2002 in the remote southeastern village of Celebici.
Following the war, Bosnia was divided into two semi-independent entities — the Serbs’ Republika Srpska (RS) and the Muslim-Croat Federation — each with its own government, parliament and police. The two are linked by weak central institutions.