Fractured Bosnia Struggles to Form Police Force for All

The two most-wanted Bosnian Serb war crimes fugitives remain Radovan Karadzic, left, and Gen. Ratko Mladic.
The two most-wanted Bosnian Serb war crimes fugitives remain Radovan Karadzic, left, and Gen. Ratko Mladic. (File Photo By Srdjan Ilic -- Associated Press)
By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 16, 2007

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia -- The tip was vague but promising, like so many other recent leads that had failed to pan out.

"One of the accused could be attempting to cross the border near the village of Bratunac" was the message relayed to Dragan Milosevic, chief police investigator in Republika Srpska, the Serb-governed sector of Bosnia. "The accused," Milosevic recalled in an interview, could have referred only to five Bosnian Serb fugitives charged with committing crimes against humanity during their country's 1992-95 ethnic civil war.

Milosevic and two dozen of his officers proceeded to the small farming village, where they came upon a sickly-looking man in a baseball cap, walking alone on a dirt road. They recognized him as Zdravko Tolimir, a former Bosnian Serb commander who had allegedly helped lead the massacre of as many as 8,000 Muslim prisoners at Srebrenica in July 1995.

"We asked, 'Are you the one we're looking for?' " Milosevic recalled in Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska. "He didn't resist. He said, 'I am the general, but don't expect me to talk to any of you. You are my enemies, the collaborators.' He still lives in the war and thinks of us as traitors. It looked like he'd been abandoned there."

The May 31 arrest of Tolimir, who is accused of genocide and other crimes and will stand trial at a U.N. tribunal in The Hague, was hailed by international officials and Bosnia's Srpska government as a breakthrough in the hunt for wartime fugitives.

But critics of the Srpska police force continue to accuse it of failing to pursue war criminals aggressively, perhaps at the behest of Serbia, the ethnic homeland next door. Some Bosnian Muslim politicians say Serbia is seeking to run out the clock on the tribunal, whose mandate for commencing new trials expires next year, though it could be renewed.

Twelve years after the end of the war, four key Bosnian Serb fugitives remain at large, including the two most-wanted: Radovan Karadzic, the wartime Bosnian Serb political leader, and his army's commander, Ratko Mladic.

The 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the war divided the country into two ethnic enclaves and gave each the right to police itself. Now, creation of a single multiethnic police force has become the biggest stumbling block in Bosnia's quest to join the European Union. Talks among Bosnia's factions resumed this month in advance of an upcoming deadline to produce a policing agreement that can be presented to European officials this year.

"I am not optimistic," Raffi Gregorian, deputy high representative of foreign parties to the Dayton accords, said when asked about the prospects for an agreement. "And that means we're on hold another year before we get the process going again."

A compromise proposal that Gregorian's office has put forward in recent weeks has been criticized by both Muslim and Serb leaders. The Muslims, who control an ethnic zone known as the Federation and play a primary role in Bosnia's national government because Muslims are the country's largest ethnic group, would like to abolish the Srpska police in favor of a more nationalized force. They say many members of the Srpska force are war criminals.

"Keeping the Srpska police intact is like allowing the Gestapo to police Holocaust victims," said Haris Silajdzic, the Muslim representative in the country's three-pronged presidency. "We need a multiethnic police force because such forces do not commit massacres."

Bosnian Serbs say their minority status leaves them vulnerable and in need of their own security force. Their leaders say they would rather forgo a place in the E.U. than their 7,000-member police contingent. While they have rejected calls to change the name of the force, Republika Srpska Police, they have agreed to swap its wartime eagle logo for one with no connotations, which would leave many officers without their trademark hats while the switch is completed.

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