Austrian police, acting at the request of the U.N. war crimes tribunal, seized the chief of the Bosnian Serb army while he visited Vienna today and sent him to a prison in the Netherlands, where he will be the highest-ranking Serbian military official to stand trial on charges stemming from the Bosnian war.
Gen. Momir Talic, now the army chief of staff of Bosnia's Serb Republic, commanded troops in northwestern Bosnia during the 1992-95 war and was a member of the inner circle of advisers to Gen. Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb wartime military chief who also has been indicted on war crimes charges.
The indictment alleges that as chief of the 1st Krajina Corps, Talic, 57, "planned, instigated, ordered, committed, or otherwise aided and abetted" the mistreatment, killing, detention and deportation of tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims and Croats in 1992.
The arrest occurred as Talic, apparently unaware that his name was on one of the tribunal's sealed indictments, was in Vienna to attend a military seminar sponsored by the 55-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Louise Arbour, chief prosecutor of the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, said today she had received information that Talic would be in Austria and enlisted authorities there to act on a secret arrest warrant issued by a tribunal judge two weeks ago.
Among the startled witnesses to the arrest at Vienna's National Defense Academy, was Manojlo Milovanovic, defense minister of the Bosnian Serb Republic, which along with the Muslim-Croat Federation makes up the Republic of Bosnia.
"Every Serb can be arrested," Milovanovic angrily told the Yugoslav news agency before cutting his visit short and returning home with the rest of the Serb Republic's delegation.
It was the tribunal's first arrest outside the territory of the old six-republic Yugoslav federation, and it served as a reminder to other tribunal indictees at large -- including Mladic and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic -- that they risk arrest if they venture outside their home territory.
Talic is charged with crimes against humanity in the northwestern Prijedor region of Bosnia in 1992 -- "namely, persecutions on political racial and religious grounds" against Bosnian Muslims and Croats, the indictment said.
The six-year-old war crimes court's indictment of Talic on March 14 had not previously been made public. Following a prosecutorial strategy of packaging indictments to consolidate investigations and speed the trial process, it links Talic to the last war crimes suspect to be arrested, Bosnian Serb Radislav Brjanin.
On July 6, British NATO troops in the Bosnian Serb Republic picked up Brjanin, who with Talic ran a regional "crisis staff," one of several groups allegedly created by Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic -- another war crimes suspect who is still at large -- to oversee the terrorizing of Muslims and Croats and their expulsion from the area. Brjanin, on the political side, and Talic, on the military side, are alleged to have been the organizers of systematic killings, beatings and deportations of thousands of non-Serbs during the 2 1/2-year conflict.
Brjanin, once a deputy prime minister of the Serb Republic, is the most senior civilian among the 30 Bosnian Serbs now in custody; Talic is the most senior Bosnian Serb military figure awaiting trial. Arbour said today that the two men will be tried together; Brjanin pleaded not guilty last month.
Previous apprehensions of Bosnian Serb, Muslim and Croat war crimes suspects -- about half of those who have been publicly indicted are now in custody -- were carried out by international peacekeeping forces in the Balkans. This time, Arbour said, the U.N. tribunal found willing and quick-acting partners in the Austrians, whose response she praised.
Mirko Sarovic, the vice president of the Serb Republic, called the arrest of his country's top military officer "humiliating," and protested that the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe had been abused by the tribunal. OSCE officials said the organization did not know that Talic would be attending the conference or that he would be arrested.
Following his arrest, Talic was turned over to tribunal officials and flown to the special U.N. war crimes penitentiary just outside The Hague. He is not likely to stand trial for many months; if convicted, the maximum sentence he could receive is life imprisonment.
Talic's arrest coincided with the first visit to the tribunal of its newly confirmed chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, who will take up her duties in late September as Arbour leaves to become a Supreme Court justice in her native Canada.
Del Ponte, 52, is the federal prosecutor of Switzerland. A seasoned criminal prosecutor, she has a high-profile record of investigating Swiss banks tied to money-laundering by Russian and other foreign organized crime groups.