- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2000

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. We can go after the others, but if we are to achieve our mandate, we must have the top."

By all accounts, Mrs. del Ponte is an intense, aggressive and ambitious prosecutor.

"She's a bulldog in the best sense," said U.S. Ambassador for War Crimes Issues David Scheffer, who described her as more detail-oriented than her predecessors. "Madame del Ponte is not someone afraid to express her point of view."

Her staff, some of whom have been with the tribunal for years, agreed the 53-year-old prosecutor with silver hair and funky black glasses is not afraid to shake things up.

Detractors and fans alike consider her something of a character energetic and demanding, a high-strung chain-smoker who can be difficult to work with. Unlike her predecessor, Louise Arbour of Canada, Mrs. del Ponte travels behind a permanent security cordon and does not socialize easily with diplomats or staff members.

Several U.N. and government officials who have worked with and for her mention her formality, intensity and, inevitably, distance.

"There is no question that Arbour was the better diplomat," said one official who has watched her work. "Del Ponte is so aggressive she forgets she has to bring governments along with her. She's learning, but it's been difficult."

The Rwandan government, for example, remains impatient with the glacial pace of international trials and is desperate for a piece of the U.N. tribunal's $75 million budget.

Although Mrs. del Ponte inherited the Barayagwiza case from Miss Arbour, there is still considerable tension, with Rwandan officials often reluctant to grant visas and security to U.N. forensic investigators or allow witnesses to travel to the Tanzania-based tribunal to testify.

Mrs. del Ponte has vowed to spend half her time at the Arusha court complex, and has even rented a house there.

None of the dust-ups is likely to surprise those who knew her in Switzerland, where Mrs. Del Ponte was a high-profile and controversial attorney general.

She won few friends in government or the financial services sector when she indicted bank directors for conspiracy and tried to open up Switzerland's secret bank accounts, which she blamed for facilitating organized crime around the world.

Before leaving in September to come to the Hague-based tribunal, she opened an investigation accusing Boris Yeltsin, his family members and several Kremlin officials of taking bribes.

During five years as Swiss attorney-general, Mrs. del Ponte also ordered the confiscation of accounts of ousted Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari; Raul Salinas, brother of former Mexican President Carlos Salinas, and close Yeltsin associate Boris Berezovsky, among others.

Several of these well-publicized cases were overturned on appeal, and Swiss courts have noted her propensity to overstep her authority.

Although Mrs. del Ponte put herself forward for the tribunal job, she said she is sometimes overwhelmed at the carnage her investigators find. And she is wistful for some of her old enforcement powers.

"As a national prosecutor, you give the police an order," she said. "Here, I have no police, only investigators. I can give no orders."

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