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Former Bosnian Serb Leader Pleads Guilty - 2002-10-04

A guilty plea by former Bosnian Serb leader Biljana Plavsic has the United States hoping it will encourage others to come forward and accept responsibility for war crimes. The two most prominent figures from the wartime Bosnian Serb government facing war crimes charges are still at large.

U.S. diplomats are hoping that the surprise guilty plea by Ms. Plavsic will give added momentum to the tribunal's work and speed the surrender of other former leaders of the wartime Bosnian Serb government, who are held responsible for thousands of civilian deaths between 1992 and 1995.

The 72-year-old Ms. Plavsic pleaded guilty to the offense of crimes against humanity as part of a deal with prosecutors in which several other war crimes charges, including genocide, were dropped.

Her lawyers said that by accepting responsibility and expressing remorse, she wanted to give some consolation to the victims of the Bosnian war, including Muslims, Croats and Serbs.

The former Serb leader made her plea in a video hookup from an undisclosed site in the Balkans where she is free on provisional release until receiving her sentence, which could be life in prison.

At a briefing here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher welcomed the guilty plea the first by a former Balkans leader and said he hopes her statement of remorse will contribute to post-war reconciliation.

He said her example should be followed by others, including her predecessor as Bosnian Serb president, Radovan Karadzic, and his military chief Ratko Mladic - the two most-prominent indicted war crimes figures still at large. "We hope that her invitation, in her written statement released yesterday, to other wartime leaders to examine themselves and their own conduct would be heard loudly and clearly throughout the former Yugoslavia and will encourage those culpable of war crimes similarly to accept their responsibility," he said. "We call on persons indicted for war crimes who remain fugitives from justice, especially people like Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, to follow Ms. Plavsic's example by voluntarily surrendering to the tribunal."

The two fugitive leaders are believed to be in hiding in the Serb-controlled area of Bosnia and have eluded efforts to apprehend them by U.N. police and the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia, SFOR.

NATO has come under persistent criticism for its failure thus far to capture the pair, though spokesman Boucher said the United States and other countries with security forces in the region, and Balkans governments, are determined to pursue them and in his words: "we intend to get them."

Mr. Boucher said the work of the Balkans tribunal, currently dominated by the trial of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, has gained momentum in recent months.

He said while 23 indicted persons remain at large, nearly 90 others have either been processed by the court or are in pre-trial detention, with 28 war crimes convictions thus far.