Karadzic Caught Diplomats Hail Arrest of 'Europe's Bin Laden'

Ecstatic diplomats are promising Serbia a future in the European Union following the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, whom US mediator Richard Holbrooke has dubbed "Europe's bin Laden." The arrest has also given much-needed impetus to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

By Renate Flottau in Belgrade


Serge Brammertz probably never enjoyed cancelling a visit more than this one. The chief prosecutor for the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague had been due to fly to Belgrade this Tuesday to insist once again on the arrest of the three remaining war criminals at large, including Radovan Karadzic. The former Bosnian Serb leader will now be sent to The Hague for trial after a 12-year manhunt.

A photo released on Tuesday showed Karadzic had concealed his identity by growing a long white beard. Rasim Ljajic, the minister in charge of cooperation with the international court, said the trained psychiatrist had been working in a private medical surgery in Belgrade specializing in "alternative medicine," and had called himself Dragan Dabic.

Karadzic, 63, president of the Republika Srpska in Bosnia from 1992 to 1996, looked emaciated when he was arrested in Belgrade on Monday night, according to the Serb authorities. He was interviewed by an investigating judge until 2.30 a.m. on Tuesday morning. He reportedly refused to give information but his identity was proven conclusively, officials said.

The arrest was far more peaceful than anyone could have expected. The Serb government said no shots were fired and there were no deaths or injuries.

But after the arrest dozens of his supporters gathered in front of the court building in Belgrade where Karadzic was being held. Heavily armed units of the Serbian police were deployed to guard the building and several Karadzic supporters were arrested after they had started attacking reporters at the scene. Many Serbs still regard Karadzic as a patriot. "Karadzic, you hero!" they chanted.

Meanwhile, in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, where an estimated 10,000 people died during a four-year siege by Serb nationalists from 1992 to 1996, Bosnian Muslims flooded into the streets and cheered, sang and danced at the news of Karadzic's arrest. The streets were clogged with cars honking their horns.

Doubts About Official Version of Arrest

But it's questionable if Belgrade's version of events is completely true. Karadzic's lawyer Svetozar Vujacic told reporters that Karadzic had been arrested on a public bus around 9:30 a.m. on Friday and held until he was brought to the court Monday. A cover was pulled over his head so that he couldn't tell who was arresting him, said Vujacic, adding that Karadzic spent three days locked in a room. Investigating judge Milan Dilparic said he would look into the allegation.

The fact that Karadzic was travelling on a crowded public bus through Belgrade raises the question whether Karadzic felt safe from arrest or had agreed to turn himself in.

At the end of the 1990s Karadzic had made secret contact with investigators in The Hague offering to give himself up in return for a guarantee that a briefcase full of documents would be admitted as evidence in his defense. The deal never came about. But the fact that the Montenegro-born politician indicted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity managed to evade capture for 12 years led to widespread speculation.

One of the theories was that he was secretly being protected by Washington because the Bosnian Serb leader might have knowledge of agreements during the Bosnian war that could embarrass the US government. In addition, there were fears among the international forces stationed in Bosnia that an arrest of the "hero" Karadzic might endanger the fragile peace in the country and cause the Serb population to revolt.

As a result, the speculation goes, Karadzic's pursuers made do with sporadic searches of the homes of his wife and daughter and with freezing the accounts of suspected Karadzic helpers.

Bid to Join EU

The timing of the arrest is doubtless the result of a new strategy by the Serb government to avoid missing an opportunity to join the European Union.

The Socialist Party, which is part of the government, could lose votes as a result of the arrest, and its leader and Interior Minister Ivica Dacic was quick to stress that the police force -- which is his responsibility -- had nothing to do with it. The Socialists declared that cooperation with the UN must not be unilateral and should be constructive on both sides. Commentators suspect Belgrade told Karadzic that if he gave himself up without a fight, the government would provide evidence from its archives to assist his defense, and even remove incriminating evidence. With an interior minister like Dacic, who never questioned the war aims of former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic, this shouldn't be too difficult.

But it's unlikely that Karadzic will be able to mount an effective defense by arguing that he was only obeying the orders of Milosevic, who died in custody in 2006. Karadzic is likely to blame the massacre of Srebrenica, in which around 8,000 Muslims were murdered, on his wartime commander Ratko Mladic.

The West has responded to Karadzic's arrest with praise and promises. The courageous move by the Serb government had opened the path to EU membership, said EU Commissioner Olli Rehn, who is responsible for the bloc's expansion. US mediator Richard Holbrooke, who brokered the peace agreement that led to the Dayton accords, said "Europe's bin Laden" had been arrested and that it was a "historic day."

For the tribunal in The Hague, the arrest comes as a gift from heaven. Frustrated by the fruitless hunt for the two main players in the Bosnian war and the death of Milosevic, the international war crimes court was battling funding shortages and image problems. It had been due to close its doors for all new cases at the end of 2008, but is now expected to get an extension by the UN Security Council.

And if Karadzic insists on defending himself like Milosevic did, the world is likely to witness another public review of the horrors of the Bosnian war for some years to come.

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