Jon SwainSerb snatched by rogue Nato bounty hunter
July 23 2000
NATO peacekeepers captured a suspected war criminal by using a team of bounty hunters allegedly led by a former Bosnian Serb commander whose men took part in the Srebrenica massacre.
The gang seized their prisoner at a hideaway in Serbia, smuggled him bound and gagged across the Drina River, the border with Bosnia, and handed him to American troops for delivery to the war crimes tribunal in the Hague.
Informed sources say the Americans put up the bounty from a CIA slush fund. A Muslim connected with Sfor, the Nato-led stabilisation force in Bosnia, recruited a professional hit squad of unemployed Bosnian Serb army veterans who were willing to betray former comrades for money.
The use of bounty hunters follows calls by Carla del Ponte, the tribunal's chief prosecutor, for peacekeepers to devise more "creative" ways to catch indicted war criminals.
But it appears that one bounty hunter, Milorad Palemis, also known as Misa, had commanded the 10th Demolition Unit, a Bosnian Serb commando force involved in the Srebrenica massacre.
Another bounty hunter and Bosnian Serb veteran, Jugoslav Petrusic, fought as a mercenary in Zaire after the Bosnian war. He and Palemis belong to the so-called Spider gang and have been arrested by the Belgrade authorities accused of plotting to assassinate President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia.
Palemis has always denied involvement in the Srebrenica massacre, claiming he had a car accident in the week the United Nations-protected enclave was overrun which left him injured and out of the chain of command.
But it is certain that tribunal investigators have looked into his role, raising the possibility that Palemis may have been on a secret indictment list even as he turned over a wanted suspect to Sfor for money.
"Anything is fair game in Serbia these days," said a source close to the case. "There are plenty of people after a few thousand dollars, and in Balkan terms it is nothing new to betray your compatriots."
However, Sfor's use of bounty hunters risks blowing up in Nato's face this week. On Tuesday the tribunal will hear an application by Stevan Todorovic, the snatched suspect, to be released after 22 months in custody. He is demanding to be returned to Serbia on the grounds that his kidnapping was a criminal act that makes his arrest unlawful.
Todorovic, 43, a former police chief, is one of several Bosnian Serbs indicted for the ethnic cleansing of Bosanski Samac, a town in northeastern Bosnia where Muslims, Croats and Serbs lived in harmony until the spring of 1992.
He is charged with crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva convention and violations of the customs or laws of war. Prosecutors allege that he beat and kicked to death one man in the local police station, beat another in a school gym so badly that the victim was left partially paralysed, and forced two people "to perform sexual acts upon each other in the presence of several other prisoners and guards".
To avoid capture by Nato after the war, Todorovic left Bosnia and went to a weekend cottage in the Zlatibor mountains of southeast Serbia, where he believed he could not be found. On the night of September 27, 1998, there was a pounding on the door and four men in camouflage with their faces partially covered burst in with guns and slapped him around.
They took him out and threw him into a car. The kidnappers then told him that if he or his family could give them £13,000, they would let him go.
After crossing the Drina, Todorovic was put in the boot of a car. He heard a radio communication in English and within five minutes a helicopter arrived. A light was shone and someone said: "That's him."
He was transferred to an American helicopter and flown to the local American headquarters, where the commanding general told him: "You see, we can do whatever we want."
The scene of the arrest was video-recorded by the Americans and Todorovic was flown to the Hague.
The case has put the UN tribunal on the spot. Todorovic has been lawfully indicted for murder, rape, torture and crimes against humanity, which public interest demands should be tried; but the tribunal cannot be seen to lend itself to what could be regarded as a criminal act.
In a terse message to the court, Sfor has refused to appear before it this week. Its lawyers say they do not give out information that would jeopardise the capture of more suspected war criminals.