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HE symbol of the French government's refusal to arrest men indicted for war crimes is the Bosnian Serbs' paramount political leader, Radovan Karadzic. Karadzic lives in the French sector, in and around Pale, a ski village above Sarajevo. He felt enough at ease in December to attend the baptism of his newest grandchild. Karadzic was driven from public life in 1996, and the international authorities in Bosnia are not supposed to have contact with him. U.S. officials allege, however, that the French authorities have maintained contact with Karadzic, and that they buy fuel from him through his brother, Luka, and other old cronies.
The French army's first attempt at an arrest was a controversial operation, in January of last year, to capture Dragan Gagovic, a former police chief of Foca, which lies upriver from Visegrad. The indictment against Gagovic, issued in 1996, alleged that he had command responsibility for rape camps in Foca and that he had sexually assaulted a Muslim woman who told investigators that she had gone to the police to complain about the mistreatment of the town's Muslim women. Former tribunal officials say that the case against Gagovic was weak. "The sexual-assault charge was based upon the testimony of one woman, whose credibility was called into question," one says.
Michael Montgomery has covered Yugoslavia for years, most recently as a documentary journalist working on an investigative series for National Public Radio on the Serb killings in Kosovo. Montgomery met Gagovic about six times after his indictment and maintained telephone contact with him over the next two years. "Gagovic was seriously considering turning himself in," Montgomery says. "His main reason to talk with me was to open a channel of communication with the tribunal. Gagovic said he was innocent. He said he did not rape the woman who made the charges in the indictment, and that he had done more than anyone else in Foca to save Muslim lives. He spoke proudly of his friendships with the Muslims and his Muslim colleagues in the police whom he helped get out of Foca. And I've talked with many Muslims who said it was Gagovic who enabled them to leave Foca safely. They expressed a willingness to testify in his defense. Tribunal officials also told me there was a lot of exculpatory evidence in the case."
The real organizers of the violence in Foca, according to numerous Serb and Muslim witnesses and a 1998 Human Rights Watch report, were the members of the town's Serb "crisis committee," a group of nationalist leaders that included Velibor Ostojic, Karadzic's one-time propaganda chief. "Gagovic knew a lot about the workings of the crisis committee," Montgomery says. "He witnessed several meetings. He told me he heard Ostojic order the leader of a paramilitary group to begin a terror campaign against the town's Muslims. Gagovic couldn't believe the tribunal hadn't indicted any members of the crisis committee or the military leaders who were on record as having run the show. The tribunal had indicted only some low-level hit men and Gagovic."
Understand this and you will understand that Gagovic was an easy target for the French -- and, indeed, could have been a fall guy. He was also someone who would be considered expendable by Foca's hard-liners, including Ostojic, who, Western diplomats say, has still not been indicted by the tribunal.
A French military arrest team set up a roadblock to snare Gagovic in December of 1998, according to one diplomat, who told me, "He avoided it by turning his car down a back road." On January 9 of last year, however, Gagovic was driving home from a youth martial-arts tournament on Mount Tara, in Serbia. Gagovic, who was a coach, had five members of his team riding with him, and he was unarmed. In the late afternoon they crossed a metal bridge over the Drina and turned onto an unpaved road that climbs the river valley's eastern wall. Gagovic spotted a roadblock at a curve in the road. French soldiers signaled him to stop. On the outside of the curve was a steep ravine, so there was no turning back. One of the children in the car later said that Gagovic told them to get down and then attempted to drive through the roadblock. The soldiers opened fire, riddling the car with bullets and hitting Gagovic in the left side of his head. The car swerved to the inside of the road, hit a rock, and flipped onto its roof. The children survived, but Gagovic was killed.
NATO's secretary-general, Javier Solana, almost immediately declared the use of deadly force appropriate, because, according to the French, Gagovic had driven directly at soldiers manning the roadblock. High-ranking NATO military commanders, however, suspect that at the very least the French resorted to lethal force unnecessarily, because Gagovic could have been picked up walking along the streets of Foca any day of the week. One diplomat says that SFOR's former commander, U.S. Army General Montgomery Meigs, asked the French army to let him view copies of the videotapes that are routinely recorded during such an operation. Clearly, his intention was to see how close Gagovic actually came to a French soldier. "They wouldn't show Meigs the video," the diplomat says. "They stiff-armed him."
RENCH diplomats and political analysts say that only a few high-echelon people in Paris have knowledge of how France's decisions are made about the arrest of indicted war criminals. These diplomats are, however, quick with explanations and excuses for France's behavior. "We are the way we are," one French ambassador began when I interviewed him in December. Another diplomat went on the attack, saying that an American journalist wouldn't show up in Paris asking about the war-crimes issue unless he intended either to put pressure on the French authorities to arrest Karadzic (so that General Clark can claim the credit before he retires) or to bolster U.S. opposition to a French-backed European defense force that would cut into NATO's monopoly. French diplomats also say that the French army, like the Pentagon, fears casualties and won't take unnecessary risks. But France lost seventy-five peacekeepers during the Bosnian war, more than any other nation, and the French officers I've talked with never expressed any second thoughts about the casualties. The French ambassador told me that the lesser war criminals were best left to themselves. "We have to help them become democratic," he said. "Look at Germany. After the war we had a lot of criminals who became nice guys with families." Other French diplomats say that Dayton was an American show, and that France should not have been reduced to playing a bit part. These people say that France wants to mount an operation with its NATO partners to capture Karadzic, and that it is up to the NATO military commander to call for one. American officials reject that argument. General Clark said in an interview with me in December that France knows and understands that it is bound to arrest war criminals in its sector. White House officials and other U.S. military officers say that a joint operation is out of the question, because France cannot be trusted.
A pro-Serb bias has for decades been strong in the French army and intelligence service, which harbor anti-Muslim sentiments left over from France's colonial experience -- especially the traumatic war in Algeria, forty years ago. French generals learned about Bosnia by reading briefing papers that could have been written in Pale. In 1998 a French officer, a graduate of France's elite military academy, Saint-Cyr, was caught by the Americans and arrested by French authorities for allegedly passing information about likely NATO bombing targets to a Serb agent. Le Monde reported that the officer, Major Pierre-Henri Bunel, later confessed to disclosing the information out of sympathy for the Serb cause.
Jacques Chirac's election to the French presidency, in May of 1995, brought at least a temporary radical change in the pro-Serb policy toward Bosnia of his Socialist predecessor, the late François Mitterrand. Chirac is a Gaullist and an activist, and he served in Algeria with the French army, but he has no personal bias in favor of the Serbs. He was incensed by the Bosnian Serbs' humiliation of French soldiers in the UN peacekeeping force, and personally ordered the French army in Sarajevo to retake an observation post that had been taken by Serbs disguised in French army uniforms. The fall of Srebrenica outraged him. He supported strengthening the UN peacekeeping force with rapid-reaction ground troops and advocated using NATO's might to end the war. So Chirac might be expected to approve operations to arrest Serb war criminals. Is his failure to do so a lack of will? Or has he been co-opted or compromised by a bureaucracy and an army that have a different world view and a conflicting agenda?
Senior French government official who has years of experience with the Balkans, including direct involvement in the war-crimes situation, gave compelling answers to these questions during an interview in Paris in mid-December. He offered up no excuses for France's long hesitancy to arrest small-time war criminals, the grunts who did most of the killing and raping. But the unifying theme of his answers regarding the failure to arrest indicted leaders, such as Radovan Karadzic and his top military commander, Ratko Mladic, was a concern for the damage they could inflict on Chirac's presidency, the French government, and the army during a court trial in The Hague. Such a trial, the official said, would become a media circus. This is because -- despite all the indisputable evidence of atrocities, mass expulsions, and rapes -- political and military leaders from the world over climbed the winding road to Pale to negotiate with Karadzic and Mladic throughout the Bosnian war. French, American, and Dutch generals met with them and supped with them and drank toasts to peace with them, and spoke warmly about Serb "hospitality." General Clark was photographed trading caps with Mladic.
"The trial of Karadzic would be a trial of the inconsistencies, contradictions, failures, and hypocrisies of the entire Western world," the official said, stressing that political leaders in Washington have no more interest than the French in arresting the top Bosnian Serb leaders. "If Mladic were brought to trial, his defense lawyers would be able to call half of the French army that served in Bosnia during the war to testify. He could not be denied the right to call them as witnesses. No one has worked out a strategy on how to handle Karadzic's prosecution if he is arrested. If he ever comes to trial, he'll say he was in permanent contact with all the countries of the Western world. He'll say he received permanent commitments."
The tribunal is incapable of handling the Karadzic case, the official said: "The prosecutorial wing is weak. It has only handled cases of the small fish. This would be a big show. And once these people are in front of the tribunal, you can't control the situation anymore."
What specific embarrassments might the French President, government, and army have to fear in testimony by Karadzic or Mladic during a judicial spectacular in The Hague?
Srebrenica. France led the diplomatic campaign in 1993 that moved the UN Security Council to declare the town of Srebrenica a "safe area" and promise to protect its 40,000 Muslims. On July 10, 1995, Ratko Mladic launched the first of two final assaults on the town. General Bernard Janvier, the French commander of the UN troops in Yugoslavia, refused to call for NATO air action that could have thwarted the Serb attack. Janvier has yet to explain his decision publicly. But UN officials, along with diplomats and military officers from other countries, believe that he balked because French negotiators, including Janvier himself and other high-ranking French military and intelligence officials, had a month earlier given the Serbs a pledge to block NATO air action in exchange for the release of several hundred Serb-held UN hostages. Mladic's men overran Srebrenica on July 11; by July 18, Serb firing squads had executed about 7,000 Muslim prisoners. A French general told me in 1997 that Janvier had been instructed to remain silent about why he let Srebrenica fall without calling on NATO, and diplomats who have seen Janvier say that he is a broken man. Even if Janvier and other French officials did not make the Serbs any promises, Karadzic and Mladic and other senior Serb leaders could make outrageous claims in The Hague. They could call Janvier to testify and claim that he gave them a green light. They could point to the minutes of meetings and telephone conversations. Negotiations for release of the hostages were going on at the highest levels, too -- including between Chirac and Slobodan Milosevic, the President of Yugoslavia, by telephone.
The pilots. The most intensive round of hostage negotiations between the French government and the Serbs took place in December of 1995, just before the signing of the Dayton Accords. Chirac sent a special agent, Jean-Charles Marchiani, to Serbia and Bosnia to negotiate the release of two French pilots who had been captured by the Serbs after bailing out of their plane during a NATO bombing run the previous August. According to Le Monde, Marchiani, a shadowy right-wing political leader and an experienced hostage negotiator, used a spy, Jugoslav Petrusic, a dual French-Yugoslav national, to keep tabs on the captive pilots as Marchiani traveled between Pale, Belgrade, and Paris. It is rumored in Paris that in late November and early December, Chirac had almost a dozen telephone conversations with Milosevic about the pilots, and perhaps one talk with Mladic, who had already been indicted by the tribunal and linked with the Srebrenica massacre. Reports by UN officials indicate that Mladic had for months expressed concern about being arrested for war crimes, and it is clearly possible that he sought immunity from prosecution. Despite French government denials, ever since the pilots' release, on December 12, 1995, there has been speculation in Paris and abroad that the French negotiators made promises not to arrest Serbs indicted for war crimes.
Economic links. French diplomats have for years advocated lifting all economic sanctions against Serbia, and another potential embarrassment to the French President and government could be a revelation of the extent of government involvement in business dealings between the Milosevic regime and French companies. According to a new book by Florence Hartmann, a former Belgrade correspondent for Le Monde, on August 11, 1998, one of Milosevic's cronies, Miodrag Zecevic, was arrested by the authorities in France on fraud charges. Milosevic called Chirac, and several days later Zecevic was effectively released on his own recognizance. He fled to Belgrade and never returned.
Another questionable business link involves Jean-Pierre Rozan, a Paris-based minerals trader. Rozan said during an interview that he has been buying ores from Serbian mines for the past ten years, including the entire period when doing business with Milosevic's Yugoslavia was banned by the UN Security Council. Rozan said that in July of last year he acquired a stake in a mine in Kosovo whose other owners are Milosevic-controlled companies and banks. About half of the mine lies in a patch of northern Kosovo patrolled by French troops that are part of the NATO force occupying the province; these troops have prevented the area's Albanians from returning to their homes. "I've kept the President and the Prime Minister very well informed of what I am doing," Rozan said, referring to Chirac and Lionel Jospin. "I am getting increasing French government cooperation with my efforts to renew economic links with Serbian companies."
Psycho killers. Rozan said that purely by coincidence, in the offices a floor below his is a company that has also had dealings with Milosevic's network. This company is a telecommunications firm known as Geolink, and it is involved in another blooming embarrassment for the French President and government. Geolink has been named in a percolating scandal whose main players are a gang of Serb gunmen, the Yugoslav government, and France's intelligence service, La Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure. In 1997, according to U.S. intelligence reports, the DGSE hired a group of Serb mercenaries and three Yugoslav combat airplanes, with pilots and mechanics, for the armed forces of Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator of Zaire, who was unsuccessfully attempting to avoid being overthrown. Citing U.S. intelligence reports and the French press, The New York Times reported that a Geolink official had offered, in a letter to the office of President Chirac, to recruit the Serb mercenaries. One of the fighters was later identified as Jugoslav Petrusic, the same spy who had kept tabs on the hostage French pilots. Petrusic, the Times reported, ruled over one town in Zaire "like a petty tyrant, summarily executing dozens of people."
The scandal erupted again last November 25, when the Yugoslav government's press spokesman, Goran Matic, announced that the Serbian police had arrested five members -- one of them Petrusic -- of a spy cell, code-named Spider and set up by the DGSE to assassinate Slobodan Milosevic. Matic said that Petrusic had been a member of the French Foreign Legion and was a DGSE agent who had been run by a case officer named Patrick Fort for ten years. Matic also alleged that Petrusic had participated in spying missions in Bosnia, assassinations in Yugoslavia, a 1994 massacre in Algeria, the 1995 executions in Srebrenica, the 1997 mercenary operation in Zaire, and the killing of Albanians in Kosovo during the NATO bombardment last year.
Matic's charges looked preposterous at first, and some of them still do. But some of the arrested men have indeed been linked with the Srebrenica massacre. The DGSE's chief, Jacques Dewatre, lent credibility to others among Matic's allegations by resigning a few weeks later. Government spokesmen denied it, but Le Monde wrote that Dewatre had probably been fired because DGSE operations in Yugoslavia had gone awry.
Last November, at a conference in Dayton marking the fourth anniversary of the Bosnian peace talks, a French diplomat working in Sarajevo told a group of U.S. political analysts that Bosnia is not a "real" country. In time, he said, it will be partitioned. Its Serb-held territory will ineluctably be merged into Serbia -- what Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, Milan Lukic, and other Serb nationalists have wanted from the beginning. If half of Bosnia will eventually become part of Serbia, the logic goes, there is no reason to assume any serious political risk by arresting Serb war criminals. General Clark's appeals to carry out arrests can be pigeonholed as an effort to capture Karadzic as a trophy before Clark's forced departure from NATO next month, rather than an attempt to do something that would benefit thousands of Serbs.
"The Americans are more than happy to put pressure on us," a senior French government official told me, pointing out that with the exception of Clark, no one from the Pentagon or the White House has displayed much interest in pursuing war criminals. "I have nasty stories about the Americans, too," the official said. "Nasty stories about how the Americans have tried to pass the buck. What if you've got intercepts of orders being given for a massacre and you do nothing about them?" He was clearly referring to still-unsubstantiated reports that U.S. spy agencies had timely indications of Serb preparations for the Srebrenica killings and did not act on them. There was confidence in his voice -- as if he knew that with time and patience and a long and expensive NATO deployment in Bosnia, and with the threat of a little blackmail always hanging in the air, the French position would prevail.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; The Reluctant Gendarme - 00.04 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 4; page 91-98.