U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke delivered an "exceedingly blunt" warning Saturday to Serbian leaders that they risk the use of Western military force to arrest indicted war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic if he continues to wield behind-the-scenes power in Bosnia.
But in hours of talks with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his Bosnian Serb counterpart, Holbrooke--the architect of the Bosnian peace accords--failed to extract more than the repeat of an old and broken promise to keep Karadzic out of public view.
The talks came at the end of a mission to the Balkans by Holbrooke and Robert Gelbard, Washington's chief Bosnia negotiator, as the Clinton administration tries to "re-energize" the foundering Bosnian peace process ahead of next summer's pledged withdrawal of U.S. peacekeeping troops.
The U.S. delegation clinched a handful of agreements, including the resolution of a dispute among ethnic leaders over the divvying up of Bosnia-Herzegovina's ambassadorial posts and over a single telephone code for the country.
In the important matter of war crimes suspects, however, little progress was reported. The continued liberty of suspects such as Karadzic violates the December 1995 peace accords that ended Bosnia's 3 1/2-year war and undermines the central tenets of the treaty, including the return of refugees to their prewar homes.
Holbrooke said Momcilo Krajisnik, the Bosnian Serb member of Bosnia's three-man presidency, offered to "personally enforce" a year-old agreement under which Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb president, withdraws from politics and drops out of sight.
Karadzic signed that pact--also brokered by Holbrooke--but has since ignored it. Holbrooke acknowledged that the credibility of the agreement is "in shreds" but apparently considered a renewed promise to enforce it to be better than nothing.
Earlier in the day, senior U.S. officials had said they would not accept a return to last year's agreement because Karadzic had defied it routinely and openly. Just this weekend, a German newspaper prominently featured an interview with Karadzic. Posters of Karadzic have reappeared throughout the Bosnian Serb half of Bosnia, and he has been engaged in a bitter power struggle with his elected successor, Biljana Plavsic, since she accused Karadzic of black-market racketeering.
"This is an incredibly difficult situation," Holbrooke said in an interview. "Every inch is excruciating. Every inch of progress is against their history."
Among the warnings to Milosevic--long considered the patron of the Bosnian Serbs--and Krajisnik was the threat of a military operation to seize Karadzic. Last month, in an operation by NATO-led British special forces, a Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect was killed during a raid in the northern Bosnian Serb city of Prijedor.
"Milosevic was deeply concerned that there is not another Prijedor," said a senior U.S. official. "But to the degree they won't cooperate, we told them we cannot guarantee anything. We said to Milosevic, 'You don't like Prijedor? Too . . . bad.' "
Krajisnik, too, apparently believed that by promising to revive the year-old pledge to keep Karadzic quiet and out of sight, he could reduce the likelihood of military action.
"We said it would not change the situation," a senior U.S. official said.
Bosnian Serbs are convinced that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is planning to arrest Karadzic, and there is growing--but not full--consensus in Washington to do just that.
Adding to the anxiety of many potential war crimes suspects is the use of sealed indictments by the international war crimes tribunal at The Hague. After the public indictment of 78 people for alleged wartime atrocities, an unknown number are now under secret indictment.
In a sign of the Serbs' ill ease, Krajisnik refused for some time to attend presidency meetings in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, because of fear of arrest. He recently suggested an amnesty for all war crimes suspects, or the holding of trials locally--an idea that Karadzic, in the German interview, is also now floating.
Holbrooke and Gelbard held two days of talks with Milosevic in the opulent White Palace that the former Serbian president now occupies in his recently assumed role as Yugoslav president. They dined Friday night on a feast of meats and smoked salmon, and continued meetings Saturday, when they were joined by Krajisnik.
Besides military action, U.S. officials are said to be suggesting other possible actions to punish Serbian defiance of the peace accords, including continued denial of international loans and the freezing of personal offshore bank accounts of selected senior officials.
In their meetings, Milosevic also refused to budge on allowing full international monitoring of upcoming elections in Serbia, which with Montenegro forms the rump Yugoslavia.
To the chagrin of opposition politicians fighting a losing battle against Milosevic, Holbrooke said in an interview on an opposition radio station in Belgrade, the Serbian and Yugoslav capital, that it would be "ridiculous" to boycott the Sept. 21 vote.
The opposition has argued that Milosevic's continued tight control of the media--and his recent redrawing of districts to favor the ruling party--makes fair elections impossible.
On Saturday, two main opposition parties--part of a coalition that spearheaded months of demonstrations against Milosevic last winter--voted to boycott the elections for Serbian president and parliament, virtually assuring victory for Milosevic's Socialist Party or other hard-line nationalists.