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U.N. Arrests Serb Army Head For Alleged Ethnic Cleansing

John-Thor Dahlburg

The head of the Bosnian Serb army was arrested Wednesday while on a visit to Austria, becoming the highest-ranking military leader apprehended for alleged involvement in “ethnic cleansing” and other crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslav federation.

A secret indictment against Gen. Momir Talic, chief of staff of the Bosnian Serb military, was issued March 12 by Louise Arbour, special prosecutor of the U.N. war crimes tribunal.

Tipped off that Talic would be attending a conference in Vienna, Austria -- whose focus, ironically, was fostering greater cooperation in Bosnia-Herzegovina between the separate armed forces of the Bosnian Serbs and Muslim-Croat Federation -- Arbour’s office delivered an warrant for his arrest to Austrian officials Tuesday, tribunal spokesman Jim Landale said.

According to Landale, Talic is accused of being a member of a Bosnian Serb “crisis staff” set up in 1992 to plan and carry out mass purges, or “ethnic cleansing,” of 100,000 Muslims, Croats and other non-Serbs from areas of northwestern Bosnia-Herzegovina.

At the time, Serbs, Muslims and Croats were fighting a bitter civil war in Bosnia, which had broken away from the former Yugoslav federation. A 1995 peace treaty left the country nominally whole but divided into Bosnian Serb and Muslim-Croat republics.

Masovic said his commission discovered concentration camps and the largest number of Bosnia’s mass graves, containing the corpses of more than 1,500 Muslims, in areas controlled by Talic and the 1st Krajina Corps, the unit he commanded during the 3 year war.

Talic, 57, also was known to have been a loyal friend of Gen. Ratko Mladic, the wartime Bosnian Serb commander who is being sought by the U.N. war crimes tribunal on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Sources in Vienna, Austria, said Talic, named head of the Bosnian Serb army last year, was arrested discreetly by plainclothes Austrian police at the start of the conference’s morning session. He apparently did not resist and was flown under Austrian police escort to The Hague, home of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

For the tribunal, it was a spectacular and welcome coup. Although authorities have arrested 34 of the 67 people publicly indicted by the panel, many of the leading figures are still at large. They include Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, indicted in May for alleged war crimes in Kosovo province, and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.

“This is a really significant arrest,” Paul Risley, Arbour’s spokesman, said of Talic. “This is the first use of a sealed indictment outside the former republic of Yugoslavia. And secondly, he is clearly the most senior Bosnian Serb military official that we’ve apprehended to date.”

Ognjen Tadic, secretary-general of the Serb Radical Party in Bosnia, claimed that the invitation to Talic had been a setup. But Mans Nyberg, spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is a co-sponsor of the Vienna conference, denied that the OSCE had any advance knowledge of the sealed indictment.