A Monster On The Loose

ONLY 13 MILES OF TWISTING mountain road separate their headquarters. At the top of the mountain, holed up in a warren of bunkers, is Gen. Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military commander, a tough-talking bantam of a man who is the most wanted of Bosnia's alleged war criminals. At the bottom of the mountain is Camp Lisa, home to the equally tough-talking Col. John Batiste, a brigade commander in the U.S. First Armored Division. The two men probably hope they never meet on a dark mountain road. Mladic is a fugitive from international justice, having been indicted twice by the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. Batiste, as a leader of NATO's Implementation Force (IFOR) under the Dayton peace agreement, is supposed to arrest men like him on sight. So does Batiste expect to run into Mladic or any of the 45 other indicted Bosnian Serbs? "Only if they're stupid," he says.

Survivors of last year's death march from the overrun Muslim enclave of Srebrenica placed the general at the scene of some hideous crimes, issuing orders that led to the slaughter of thousands of Muslim prisoners. One escapee even said he saw Mladic watching a mass execution (NEWSWEEK, April 15). Mladic insists he committed no war crimes. "I am just a man who defends his people," he said last year. Denying that his men raped thousands of Muslim women, he sneered that "we Serbs are too picky" to do such a thing. But now Mladic has lost some of his swagger. He avoids contact with NATO forces, sticking fearfully close to his mountaintop bunker at Hans Pjesak, a complex built to protect the late Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito from a nuclear attack.

So why doesn't Batiste send his brigade up the mountain to arrest Mladic? IFOR's original mandate was to separate the warring parties and take away their heavy weapons, arresting accused war criminals only "if they happened to bump into them," as a U.S. official put it. Mladic, a thickset 5-foot-7 brawler, boasted to a Belgrade magazine last month that the Americans didn't dare to arrest him. "I believe they have learned something from Aidid in Somalia," he said, referring to the unsuccessful U.S. manhunt for Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid in 1993, which ended ingloriously when 18 Americans were killed in an ambush. The Serbs mutter "Aidid" like a mantra, trusting it will protect their general. "If we take him out, a lot of people will be killed," concedes a senior IFOR officer. "They really do love this guy."

But this week is the deadline for IFOR to complete its major military tasks, with the Bosnian factions withdrawing to barracks and sending their heavy weapons to collection points. Already, NATO forces are paying more attention to war crimes. As many as 200 U.S. troops were assigned to protect investigators digging up mass graves near Srebrenica. IFOR has finally given mug shots of the most-wanted fugitives to troops manning checkpoints. Recently, Defense Secretary William Perry predicted that Mladic and his alleged partner in crime, Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic, would be out of office by the end of this year. "It may not happen in the next three or four months, but it will happen," says State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns. "Sooner or later, they'll make a mistake, and they'll end up in The Hague."

Washington's preferred scenario is still for Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav leader and patron of the Bosnian Serbs, to hand Mladic and Karadzic to the war-crimes tribunal -- or at least to force them out of public life. The administration has no stomach for another manhunt, the kind of "mission creep" that forced U.S. peacekeepers to take sides in Somalia. "There's still pretty much an agreement that IFOR soldiers won't go into the hills hunting for war criminals," says Burns. But as the fugitives move around in Bosnia, there's always the chance of an unexpected encounter with NATO troops. "There are a lot of young platoon commanders, second lieutenants, just waiting for the opportunity," says British Maj. Simon Haselock. "That's what medals are made of."