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The Karadzic capture that almost was

How can US swing voters affect war-crimes action in Bosnia? Just ask Bill Stuebner, who says American officials, worried about President Clinton's reelection in 1996, sent signals that Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic took to mean that Washington, at that point, did not really want him behind bars.

Mr. Stuebner met with the indicted Mr. Karadzic as a private individual in May that year, a week before returning to work as an advisor to The Hague war-crimes tribunal. "He was scared to death, he was really sure they were coming to get him ... [and] was seriously looking to turn himself in," Stuebner recalls. In coming weeks, working through an intermediary, details were hammered out for a safe handover.

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The plan was that Karadzic would be "ambushed" on the road, Stuebner says, then separated from his security guards and flown by helicopter to an aircraft carrier. There, he would broadcast a message to Bosnian Serbs, explaining that he had not been kidnapped by NATO, but had turned himself in to "defend the honor of the Serb people" at The Hague.

The window of opportunity apparently closed after a June conference in Florence, Italy. At that time, the US applied intense pressure on international officials to certify that, in line with the Dayton peace deal, Bosnia was ready for elections in September - less than two months before the US presidential poll. American diplomats were reported to be anxious that any sign Dayton was failing - such as a Karadzic arrest that went wrong - might jeopardize Mr. Clinton's chances. So the US delegation was visibly dismayed by a speech by the tribunal's chief judge, Antonio Cassese, in which he called for Karadzic's immediate apprehension.

Bosnian Serbs apparently took the reaction to heart. A close Karadzic aide, Stuebner says, later described the advice he gave his boss: "Why would you go sit in a jail cell? The Americans don't want you arrested."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor