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Now, NATO Troops Should Catch the Big Fish

The NATO-led force in Bosnia must now quickly arrest the most important people indicted for war crimes. After troops arrested one suspected war criminal and killed another in Prijedor on Thursday, NATO crossed its Rubicon, and there is now no way back to the previous policy of benign neglect.

During my time as High Representative in Bosnia, I repeatedly urged key governments such as the United States and Britain to be ready to give their forces the orders needed to arrest those indicted for war crimes by the Hague tribunal. For these arrests to help the peace process, and not just create chaos, they had to be carefully planned and orchestrated with political initiatives.

That meant that the first targets had to be the most important indicted war criminals, including Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, and Dario Kordic, the Bosnian Croat leader. But NATO troops started by arresting minor figures. This served to give both men advance warning, making their arrests more difficult. To complicate matters, NATO will now be under more political pressure than ever to apprehend them.

I do not know what brought the NATO-led forces to discount this advice and go for a half-baked operation, which turned into what at best looks like a half-success.

There may have been other considerations of which I am unaware. But it appears that it was done without any coordination with those in Bosnia. And it will probably damage those forces inside the Republika Srpska that have started to challenge Mr. Karadzic.

But with the Rubicon crossed, the NATO-led force must now go all the way -- and quickly. If it does not, the peace process could be seriously destabilized.

By design or by default, the Dayton peace agreements have entered a new phase. And this phase will require a far more coordinated effort from the political and military sides to prevent repeating the mistakes of the Prijedor operation. And this effort will not be completed by June 1998, when President Clinton has said that United States troops should leave.

It is simply naive to think that arresting suspected war criminals, bringing them to trial and allowing the political and security situation to settle down will be completed in just 11 months. Even if trials start soon, experience shows that they are lengthy and complicated. One must assume that Mr. Karadzic and Mr. Kordic would offer robust defenses, which are bound to have consequences for political developments in Bosnia.

What happened the other day should have happened long ago. There is finally movement when for too long there was inertia, and I welcome that. But NATO must finish what it started. The future of Bosnia is at stake.

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