War-Crimes Prosecutor Not Afraid to Make Waves

Article excerpt

THE HAGUE - When she was attorney general of Switzerland, Carla del Ponte accused Boris Yeltsin of money-laundering, froze millions of dollars of Benazir Bhutto's secret assets and escaped a roadside bomb planted by the Italian Mafia.

So it should have been no surprise to see the United Nations' chief prosecutor of war crimes in the Balkans and Rwanda proceeding vigorously against NATO generals as well as Yugoslav war criminals last year.

"I was very surprised at the reaction" to a preliminary probe of NATO's air raids over Kosovo, Mrs. del Ponte said in a recent interview. "In my experience, if you have nothing to worry about . . ."

In the six months since Mrs. del Ponte took charge of the international tribunal at The Hague, she has stepped on the toes of many powerful and influential people, angering the very government officials who are, or should be, most helpful to her.

In December, she shocked Western governments when she acknowledged her staff was investigating charges that NATO had targeted Kosovar civilians and acted recklessly during last spring's air raids.

And she rarely passes up an opportunity to goad the standing international force in Bosnia, known as Sfor, for failing to arrest indicted Yugoslav war criminals who are leading very public lives.

Earlier the same month, she riled Rwandan officials when an appeals chamber ordered the release of an indicted Hutu official whose genocide trial had not started after two years in custody. Rwandan officials denied her a visa when she announced a visit to their capital, Kigali, before having sought an invitation.

These diplomatic dust-ups are largely settled now: The Rwandan government appears mollified by her successful efforts to keep Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza in custody for an accelerated trial; and after indignant protests from coalition governments, she has all but shelved the NATO investigation.

But Western officials, many of whom vigorously praised her efforts to rout organized crime and drug lords, are still unsure how far to trust her.

For example, there's her desire to command a SWAT team.

Mrs. del Ponte remains so frustrated by the failure to capture high-ranking Balkan war criminals that she rhapsodizes about having a small international task force, heavily armed and independent of their national commanders.

"I want a special police force," she said on a drizzly day in her well-secured office deep inside the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

"Not a big one, but international. Well trained. Your best military, a force that can go in quickly and zzzt," she said, smiling broadly, and made a plucking motion, her gold bracelets jangling. "They can move secretly, without all the military structure. Just arrest the fugitives with stealth and speed."

She scoffed at concerns that NATO soldiers not be injured in apprehending indictees, especially the architects of the Bosnian war: Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his senior commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic.

"All the governments tell me the difficulties they have, not to lose the life of the military when arresting the fugitives," Mrs. del Ponte scowled, clearly indignant from the glowing tip of her Marlboro Light to her audibly tapping foot. "This I cannot understand."

Following a dramatic pre-dawn raid last week in the Bosnian Serb capital, Pale - when French NATO forces captured senior Karadzic aide Momcilo Krajisnik - there are 39 suspected Balkan war criminals in custody. But that does not satisfy Mrs. del Ponte.

"Mladic! Karadzic! Milosevic!" she chants in Italian-flavored English, slapping the table with each name. "Our mandate is to pursue those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, and the most responsible are Mladic, Karadzic and Milosevic. …