Where are the war criminals?
Authorities look to South America in the hunt for fugitive Serbs
ISABEL VINCENT | Apr 2, 2007 |
The International Court of Justice ruling in late February, absolving Serbia of direct responsibility for genocide committed during the 1992-1995 war with Bosnia, may actually be the biggest boon to capturing two of the former Yugoslavia's most wanted war criminals. It gave reform-oriented Serbian officials more political clout in their efforts to aid the UN tribunal seeking those arrests. Stressing that the capture of Serb war criminals is crucial to securing a place for Serbia in the EU and relieving the country of its pariah status, President Boris Tadic immediately renewed calls for the arrest of wartime Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. Both are wanted for war crimes and genocide by the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
Tadic urged his fellow Serbs and his own government to co-operate in handing over Mladic and Karadzic, who have often been hiding in plain sight in Serbia and Montenegro thanks to a group of powerful nationalists who view the two men as heroes. They are wanted for, among other atrocities, the murder of some 8,000 Muslim men at Srebrenica in July 1995. It is imperative that they are captured in advance of a 2008 deadline imposed by the UN for the ICTY to finish its trials.(The court has until 2010 to hear final appeals.)If the court shuts down, all arrest warrants will become invalid.
So far, international efforts to capture Mladic and Karadzic have been fruitless. Just before the international court ruling, NATO troops raided the homes of Karadzic's son and daughter in Pale, close to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. After years of infighting among NATO's own members in the frustrating search for the two fugitives, the raids predictably failed to result in any arrests.
Karadzic, said to be hiding either in Bosnia or Montenegro, has the protection of a network of supporters who raise money through racketeering and drug trafficking. For his part, Mladic lived in Belgrade until January 2006, protected by powerful comrades, according to testimony given during the recent trial of 11 people accused of hiding him.
According to Srboljub Nikolic, one of those accused of hiding Mladic and a former lieutenant colonel in charge of security, Mladic lived for a time in the army barracks in the posh Belgrade neighbourhood of Dedinje, and had the protection of the Supreme Defence Council, one of whose members was the then-president of Yugoslavia, Vojislav Kostunica. In May 2002, after the Yugoslav government passed a law authorizing extraditions to The Hague, Mladic was shuttled between a handful of down-at-the-heels Belgrade apartments, offered plastic surgery and forged travel documents. For three years, between 2002 and 2005, he was driven around by army officials in a used Yugo, and given the use of a housekeeper, groceries and phone cards.
It is, however, no longer clear if Mladic remains in Serbia. Following the 2005 arrests in Argentina of Nebojsa Minic, wanted for war crimes in Kosovo, and Milan Lukic, the ICTY's third-most-wanted fugitive after Karadzic and Mladic, intelligence officials are keeping a close watch on South America, which was also an important haven for Nazi war criminals.
Minic, a low-level killer nicknamed "Dead" by his comrades in Kosovo(where, among other atrocities, he killed an ethnic Albanian family after a ceasefire was in place), was arrested in May 2005 in the Argentine interior. He died of complications from AIDS and cancer before he could be extradited. According to Argentinian authorities, Minic had entered Argentina using a false passport in 2003. The 41-year-old fugitive claimed he had worked as a mercenary in Africa prior to moving to South America. In Argentina, he ran a pizza parlour with money borrowed from one of his Argentine girlfriends.
But it was the August 2005 capture and extradition of Lukic, leader of the infamous White Eagles paramilitary, that focused attention on the region as a haven for Serb war criminals. Lukic, who was indicted in 1998 by the Hague tribunal for murder, torture and extermination during the war in Bosnia, was found living in the best neighbourhood in Buenos Aires. Among the atrocities he has been accused of committing is the rape and torture of Muslim women, and barricading dozens of Muslim women, children(in one instance including a two-day-old baby)and elderly men into houses and torching them.
How Lukic arrived in South America, where there are large Serb communities in São Paulo and Buenos Aires, may provide clues to the whereabouts of other Serb fugitives who seem to have disappeared from Europe.
Lukic lived quite openly in Serbia after the Bosnian war. He made a living from drug trafficking and racketeering, and was protected by his cousin Sreten Lukic, the former Serb deputy interior minister, and later by Karadzic's Preventiva network, a drug-smuggling ring that protects Karadzic and has been linked to other Bosnian Serb fugitives. But around January 2003, Lukic and Preventiva members began to quarrel, while his cousin Sreten was removed from office soon after and deported to The Hague for his role in Kosovo war crimes. Police stormed Lukic's family home in Visegrad and mistakenly shot his brother Novica, who was innocent. In September 2003, following Hague pressure for the Serb government to co-operate in Lukic's capture, he was sentenced in absentia by a Serb court to 20 years in jail for his role in the abduction, torture and murder of 16 Muslims in October 1992 -- although he continued to live openly in Serbia.
In January 2004, though, reportedly in a dispute over a drug shipment, Lukic fired upon Karadzic's armed bodyguards. It was clear he was no longer safe in Serbia, and a few months later he disappeared. In April 2004, after a report of the incident was published by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, a Sarajevo think tank, Lukic responded with an angry email, pledging his allegiance to Mladic and denying he had been a traitor to Karadzic. "Mladic has always been and will remain the true hero and idol, and Karadzic, the leader of my people," he said in the email, traced to a server in Brazil.
By the time Lukic was arrested in Argentina in August 2005, one Brazilian official who did not want to be identified said that he had travelled to Brazil on a tourist visa, issued by the Brazilian embassy in Belgrade some six months earlier. He subsequently crossed the border into Argentina on a false passport, issued under the name Goran Djukanovic. He was arrested outside his apartment building in Buenos Aires after he picked up his wife and daughter from the airport.
At a judicial hearing in Buenos Aires, Lukic said that he planned to surrender to The Hague because he feared that Karadzic's network would kill him. "I know lots of things happened during the war, and I was afraid that they would kill me because there are many who do not want it known what happened," Lukic told the court. "As the saying goes: better to be a tongue without a voice."
Whether the same fate awaits the other two most-wanted war crimes suspects remains to be seen. For now, Brazilian officials say that while they are not targeting Mladic or Karadzic specifically, they are very interested in why, over the last two years, an increasing number of Serb nationals have been arrested on drug trafficking charges.
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