Bosnia's international administrator fired 60 Serb officials on Wednesday, including the head of the Bosnian Serb parliament, accusing them of failing to help in the apprehension of Radovan Karadjic, the most-wanted war crimes suspect of the 1992-95 conflict in their Balkan country.
"The Serb Republic has been in the grip of a small band of corrupt politicians and criminals for far too long," administrator Paddy Ashdown told reporters, referring to the zone of Bosnia that is controlled by the country's ethnic Serbs.
Parliament head Dragan Kalinic responded to his dismissal with defiance. "Many are helpless because of the fact that Karadjic is most likely protected by God and angels," he told parliament in Banja Luka.
Many Bosnian Serbs regard Karadjic, their former president, as a nationalist hero who protected their communities during the civil war. During recent demonstrations to show support for him, Bosnian Serbs have worn Karadjic look-alike masks and plastered their cars with his portrait.
The firings were the latest tightening of pressure on the Bosnian Serbs over Karadjic by foreign powers. Leaders of the NATO alliance this week rejected Bosnia's request to join the Partnership for Peace, a group of countries that aspire to enter the alliance, on grounds that Karadjic remains at large.
The dismissals also followed predictions Tuesday by the chief U.N. war crimes prosecutor for the former Yugoslavia, Carla Del Ponte, that Karadjic would be turned over to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague by the last day of June.
During the past nine years, NATO peacekeeping forces that patrol Bosnia have mounted periodic raids in an effort to apprehend Karadjic, who has been reported hiding at various remote locations in the Serb Republic under the protection of a network of supporters.
NATO has stepped up its raids in recent months, as the alliance prepares to hand over peacekeeping responsibilities at the end of the year to a European Union force. Some military officials depict Karadjic's apprehension as a key piece of final business for NATO troops.
The 1995 agreement that ended the Bosnian war gave an international administrator appointed by the United States and other foreign parties to the pact wide authority in Bosnian political affairs. Ashdown dismissed parliament leader Kalinic, Serb Interior Minister Zoran Djeric and nine other officials "indefinitely." Another 48 officials might regain their jobs after Karadjic is captured, Ashdown said.
Bosnia is made up of three main ethnic groups, Muslims, Croats and Serbs. As the Yugoslav federation broke up in the early 1990s, Karadjic led a battle to expel Muslims from large parts of Bosnia and to join Serb areas into an expanded Serbia. Among the atrocities that prosecutors link him to is the July 1995 massacre of about 8,000 Muslim men and boys captured in the town of Srebenica.
In theory, Bosnia is now united by a national government in Sarajevo, the capital, but in practice the country remains deeply divided. There is little cooperation between the Serb Republic and the country's other main political unit, a Muslim and Croat federation. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have yet to return to their towns and hamlets of origin.
NATO forces have kept the peace, but many parts of the country are in a law-and-order vacuum, international observers say. The planned handover to the European Union force may risk the relative peace, warned the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research and advocacy group, in a recent report.
"The main security challenges today are weapons smuggling, the apprehension of war criminals, extreme religious groups and border security," the group said. "There are some realistic doubts about whether the cash-strapped and far-from-integrated armies of the EU . . . are capable of meeting these challenges."
NATO's latest effort to apprehend Karadjic was typical of past raids. On June 25, troops stormed the Panorama Hotel in the Bosnian Serb town of Pale and seized documents and computers, but failed to capture Karadjic. Days before, NATO forces had put up billboards ridiculing Karadjic on his 59th birthday, offering him a one-way ticket to The Hague and warning him, "We didn't forget."
Bosnian Muslims have on occasion scorned NATO for its failure to find their archenemy, contrasting their aggressive pursuit of suspected Islamic extremists with the hit-and-miss searches for war crimes suspects in the Serb Republic.
In early June, the Bosnian Serb parliament for the first time acknowledged that Serb forces under government control "participated" in a campaign to liquidate Muslims "in a manner which represented the heavy violation of international human rights."
But Ashdown has expressed frustration with the lack of cooperation from Serb police forces to arrest war crimes suspects. "What's not missing is information. It is the political will," he said.