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Time catches up with Karadzic

Staffordshire | News | Published:

Radovan Karadzic, Europe's most wanted war criminal has been captured. Peter Rhodes recalls a tense stand-off with the Butcher of the Balkans.

Radovan Karadzic, Europe's most wanted war criminal has been captured. Peter Rhodes recalls a tense stand-off with the Butcher of the Balkans.

The RAF Hercules dropped like a dive-bomber, flattening out at the last moment to land on the misty runway of Sarajevo Airport and leaving our stomachs far behind.

It was a classic "Khe Sanh landing" developed by the Yanks in Vietnam to dodge ground fire. No-one knew whether Radovan Karadzic's booze-fuelled thugs in the beautiful hills around the Bosnian capital would open fire.

The night before, over drinks in Zagreb, a UN official Mik Magnusson told the 10-strong media pack bluntly: "If they let this flight through without shooting at it, it means there is enough humanity around to send a message to the people who claim to lead these factions that there is another way out."

But humanity seemed in short supply. Although not a shot was fired at us on that morning 16 years ago, the killing went on.

Small arms fire crackled in the distance with the occasional plop of a mortar round.

This was history in the making. It was the day the United Nations decided enough was enough. For the past few months Karadzic's allies had laid siege to Sarajevo, killing at will.

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Radovan KaradzicOn the streets of the beautiful Balkan city, sudden death arrived with the crack of a sniper round or the white-hot rush of a mortar burst.

When the UN decided to force open the airport for aid supplies, the RAF was given the job of sending in the first Hercules.

It carried a small load of food and medicine but its real job was to draw a line in the sand, to tell Radovan Karadzic and his cronies that the civilised world was at last prepared to confront them.

Which explains why, after lobbying by the Express & Star, the Ministry of Defence agreed to take a token media group along, including the BBC, ITN, the Press Association and the E&S.

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Ending the Balkan wars would be a long and frustrating business. Before it was over tens of thousands of Serbs, Croats and Muslims would be dead, including the 7,000 men and boys massacred at Srebrenica by troops loyal to Karadzic and his general Ratko Mladic.

Countless women would be raped. Both sides gave us a revolting new term: ethnic cleansing.

If you needed to see what Karadzic's idea of war was, you only had to step into the airport terminal that morning. Airports are much the same everywhere. This could have been Birmingham or Manchester.

The airline documents lay open on the desks, abandoned by terrified staff as the killers arrived. The floor crunched beneath our feet, a gravel of broken glass and Kalashnikov cartridges. You could almost sense the panic.

Although the airport was secured by the UN, the siege of Sarajevo dragged on for another four years.

Like all dictators, Karadzic turned facts upside down.

When the world watched in horror at Sarajevo's suffering, he claimed: "Muslims have very heavy artillery. Sometimes the Serbs are forced to respond." A former psychiatrist he fancied himself as a poet and wrote of Sarajevo: "I can hear disaster walking. The city is burning out like a candle in a church."

The war followed the break-up of Communist Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. On April 6 1992, Bosnia was recognised by the United Nations as an independent state and on May 12 Radovan Karadzic was elected president.

Immediately, war broke out, with the Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo. Under the guise of protecting the Serb minority in Bosnia, leaders like Slobodan Milosevic channelled arms and military support to them.

Nato air strikes against Bosnian Serb positions in the autumn of 1995 are credited with helping force the Bosnian Serbs to talk.

A ceasefire began in October ahead of a final peace signing in Paris in December. By then at least 100,000 people were dead and 1.8 million had been displaced. Karadzic was indicted in 1995 on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. For 13 years he remained at large, protected by a personal army of paramilitaries.

His reported hideouts included Serbian Orthodox monasteries and mountain caves in remote eastern Bosnia.

But the politics of peace were steadily working against him. Serbia has had enough of post-war austerity. It wants to join the European Union and reap the rewards of grants and other aid that go with the EU club.

As long as the Butcher of the Balkans remained at large, the EU remained a distant dream. For Radovan Karadzic, the hand on the shoulder was only a matter of time.

He should have been arrested sooner. The war should have been ended sooner.

But the first little nail in Karadzic's coffin was hammered in by the RAF Hercules pilot, Squadron Leader Chris "Stingray" Tingay, and his crew on the morning of July 3, 1992 and I will always be proud to have been there.

Today Radovan Karadzic is behind bars. He is a bearded old man who looks about as dangerous as Father Christmas.

But we should not forget the evil he unleashed, the days when Sarajevo ran with blood and how the Brits arrived to steal a dictator's airport.

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