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Thursday, 28 February, 2002, 20:29 GMT
The race to catch Karadzic
Karadzic wanted poster
There had been previous attempts to arrest Karadzic
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By Bill Hayton
BBC European reporter

By all accounts, the operation to capture Radovan Karadzic was a large and well-planned one.

The only flaw in it was that the object of the mission, Mr Karadzic, was not there.

But Nato would not have launched such a public show of force without being reasonably sure they had good intelligence information.

It may well be that, last night, Mr Karadzic stayed at the compound which was raided, but managed to slip away before the troops arrived.

Operations of this type are extremely difficult and the risk of casualties, both to the arresting troops and to civilian bystanders, is very high.

Previous attempts

It was not the first attempt to arrest the former leader of the Bosnian Serbs.

There have been rumours of at least three previous efforts, and it is likely that several more planned operations have been called off.

Last July, British special forces were said to have encircled him and were waiting to carry out an arrest.

Radovan Karadzic:
  • Former President of the Bosnian Serb Republic
  • Accused by The Hague tribunal of genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the acts of war
  • Before entering politics he was a psychiatrist and poet

    See also:
      The charges

  • A mysterious report that he had been arrested last month was later thought to have been an intelligence-gathering exercise to see if associates would try to contact Mr Karadzic and reveal his position.

    There have been suggestions that this operation too might have been a practice mission.

    It took place across a very large area, some 40 kilometres (25 miles) wide, in a mountainous region known for its support of Mr Karadzic and at a time when the ground is covered with snow.

    Its chances of success seem small - so perhaps it was another way for Nato forces to gather intelligence and see how Mr Karadzic's bodyguards would react.

    New-found resolve

    But it shows a clear increase in the determination of the international community to bring Mr Karadzic to justice.

    In the years immediately after the end of the Bosnian war, they seemed quite reluctant to arrest war-crimes suspects.

    Map of Bosnia, Foca and Celebici

    Some of them lived almost openly close to areas controlled by Nato peacekeepers - in fact some French troops actually rented accommodation from a war crimes suspect.

    But from about the middle of 1997 - partly inspired perhaps by the election of the Blair government in Britain - Nato seemed to gain a new political resolve on the issue.

    The arrest rate began to rise as special forces troops began to pick up those who had been accused by the international tribunal.

    Added urgency

    Now the situation seems to be getting more urgent, for several reasons.

    Many people in the international community - both civilian and military - just want to be rid of the issue and see the last suspects arrested.

    The operation may remind Serb nationalists of the international community's desire to draw a clear line under the tragedy of the early 1990s

    They feel embarrassed that with 18,000 troops in Bosnia, they have not been able to finish the job.

    Ever since 11 September, Bosnia has been crawling with intelligence operatives and they must have gathered a wealth of information.

    At the back of their minds is the United States' wish to pull its troops out of Bosnia and there is a similar feeling that the international tribunal itself should start to wind down its activities - perhaps within two or three years.

    Neither move is politically possible until people like Mr Karadzic are detained and tried.

    Putting the past behind

    Closer to hand, several other deadlines are approaching.

    The Republika Srpska is being pressed to introduce some significant constitutional reforms - which will effectively give equal rights to Croats and Muslims within its territory.

    These have to be enacted by the end of March if elections are to go ahead as planned later in the year.

    Removing hardline nationalists such as Mr Karadzic, who still wields tremendous influence, from the political scene would help to undermine opposition to the plan.

    Friday is the 10th anniversary of Bosnia's declaration of independence, the announcement which effectively triggered its civil war.

    Both halves of the country - the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Republika Srpska - are now controlled by non-nationalist governments, but the population still seems more or less evenly divided between supporters of the war-time parties and those who want to put the attitudes of the past behind them.

    This latest operation is likely to antagonise nationalists on the Serb side, but it may also remind them of the international community's impatience and desire to draw a clear line under the tragedy of the early 1990s and move forward.

    The BBC's Ben Brown
    "The soldiers searched dozens of houses"
    Yugoslav military history expert, Col Edward Cowen
    "He has been extremely well guarded"
    Captain Daryl Morrell, SFOR spokesman
    "We will continue to try and bring him to justice"
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