British troops failed in yet another bid to capture the world’s most wanted suspected war criminal in a Bosnian raid that left a priest and his son near death today.
Amid bursts of gunfire, the soldiers encircled a church and a rectory in the Pale stronghold of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.
The targeted building was the home of three Serb Orthodox priests and their families.
The peacekeepers, backed by local police, sealed off the area and bursts of machine-gun fire were heard, along with an explosion.
The raid shattered windows and left a gaping hole at the main entrance to the rectory. Windows in a supermarket 15 yards away were also broken.
Shortly after troops entered the building, a Nato helicopter landed in the garden of the nearby church and evacuated two injured men.
A priest, Jeremija Starovlah, 52, and his son Aleksandar, 28, were taken to the hospital in the northern town of Tuzla. Both men suffered multiple fractures and head wounds, said Amra Odobasic, a spokeswoman for the Tuzla Clinical Centre.
Both men had life threatening conditions.
Captain Dave Sullivan of Canada, a spokesman for Bosnia’s Nato-led peacekeepers, said the two were injured by small explosives used for opening doors during raids.
Jeremija Starovlah is a known Karadzic supporter. Just last week, he said it was the duty of every Serb cleric to help Karadzic evade arrest and prosecution before the UN war crimes tribunal.
The town of Pale was Karadzic’s headquarters during the Bosnian war and is where his wife and daughter continue to live.
“This operation forms part of a sustained campaign against persons indicted for war crimes,” Captain Sullivan said. “They can run, but they can’t hide.”
Outraged at the action, about 3,000 people gathered to protest outside the church, carrying banners reading “Nobody will arrest a Serb,” lit candles and prayed for those injured in the Nato sweep. Many wrapped themselves in Serbia’s flag.
“We all are deeply insulted, jeopardised and humiliated as a nation,” said Slavko Kujundzic, the head of the Pale municipality.
Slobodan Lubarda, another priest who shares the same rectory with Starovlah, said “this is an act of vandalism which can only be seen in American movies.”
Nato has tried unsuccessfully several times to arrest Karadzic, believed to be on the run inside the Bosnian Serb half of Bosnia.
The indictment against Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, his fugitive wartime general, accuses them of being ”criminally responsible for the unlawful confinement, murder, rape, sexual assault, torture, beating, robbery and inhumane treatment of civilians.”
Among actions the two are accused of masterminding is the massacre of up to 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica, which came to be known as Europe’s worst slaughter of civilians since the Second World War.
The indictment described the 1995 Srebrenica killings by Bosnian Serb troops as “truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history.”
The indictment also links them to the 3 1/2 yearlong shelling and siege of mostly Muslim Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, kept surrounded by Bosnian Serb military forces from the start to the end of the war.
The war began in early 1992, after Bosnian Serbs refused to honour the results of a February referendum accepted by the republic’s Muslims and Croats that called for its secession from Yugoslavia.
Ensuing clashes led to full-scale war that killed hundreds of thousands and left close to a million others homeless.
The break-up of the former communist federation of Yugoslavia started a year before that with the bloody secession of Slovenia and Croatia. Other parts of the six-republic Balkan union also declared independence, ultimately leaving only Serbia and Montenegro in Yugoslavia.
New large-scale ethnic bloodshed erupted in 1998, with a crackdown by Serb-led troops on Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority.
That violence ended in mid-1999 when troops loyal to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic pulled out of the province in exchange for ending a 78 day Nato air war, leaving Kosovo to be administered by the United Nations.
Milosevic now is being tried by the UN war crimes tribunal for his role in the Croatian, Bosnian and Kosovo wars. Yugoslavia itself ceased to exist last year and was formally replaced by a new state called Serbia-Montenegro.