LONDON - NATO gave notice yesterday to the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, the most wanted man in the Balkans: His life on the run is about to become ever more perilous.
For the first time yesterday, NATO-led peacekeepers conducted an intensive and public operation directed at rooting out Karadzic, who has lived for years apparently just out of sight of international forces. The troops set off explosives, lifted carpets and even searched behind a church altar, but failed to find him.
Wearing black masks and armed with assault rifles, they swept through a hamlet near Celebici in a remote corner of eastern Bosnia, seizing three caches of weapons. They deployed helicopters and armored vehicles, blocked roads and cut communications.
"We didn't get him this time, but we'll keep after him," NATO spokesman Mark Laity said. "We have sent a signal to Karadzic."
With Yugoslavia's ex-President Slobodan Milosevic facing a war crimes tribunal at The Hague in the Netherlands, Karadzic is now at the top of the list of those left to be brought to justice for the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Karadzic was leader of the Bosnian Serbs during the war in Bosnia, which began in 1992 and ensnared local Serbs, Muslims and Croats who fought over land and political power. The Bosnian war was blighted by the shelling of Sarajevo and the murder of up to 6,000 Muslims at Srebrenica, Europe's bloodiest and most shameful events since World War II.
Karadzic and his military commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic, were indicted in 1995 by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, at The Hague, for alleged roles in the conflict. They are charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war.
Mladic is also at large, reputedly moving between his home in Belgrade and his protected haunts in Bosnia.
That Karadzic has evaded capture for so long has been a source of consternation and some mystery; he seemingly moves ghost-like through a craggy land he once sought to divide and conquer. He is reported to be constantly on the run with a protective shield of guards and has reputedly vowed never to be taken alive.
"Every night this bastard goes to bed he's never certain if he'll wake up, and he can't go anywhere," said Bob Stewart, who commanded a United Nations contingent of British troops in Bosnia in 1992-1993. "He's hiding. But he won't hide forever."
Some have criticized NATO-led troops for not moving more forcefully against Karadzic. But Laity said yesterday's operation "should have demonstrated to everyone that we really do have the will and desire to catch him."
"Even the doubters must now understand that we want Karadzic and we're prepared to do what is necessary and take risks," he said.
Laity said the operation "yielded some results." NATO said it seized anti-tank rockets, rifle grenades, mortar rounds, machine guns, antipersonnel mines and large-caliber ammunition.
Celebici residents said the NATO soldiers, who included Americans, emerged from four helicopters after daybreak and searched a school as well as the local church, where they looked under a carpet and behind the altar.
According to a NATO statement, the operation highlighted a "heightened will to use a wide range of capabilities and means" against all those indicted for war crimes who "do not voluntarily surrender."
Bosnian Serb leaders offered an angry response to the raid, saying NATO had acted without their knowledge. Mladen Ivanic, the Bosnian Serb prime minister, said the international community couldn't expect cooperation from local authorities if it refused to cooperate in turn.
For the rest of the world, bringing in Karadzic would signal the beginning of the end of a violent era in Balkans history.
Politician, psychiatrist and poet, the bushy-haired Karadzic was the public face of the Bosnian-Serb cause in the 1990s.
"Karadzic was the high priest of brutal, savage 'ethnic cleansing' directed against innocent Bosnian Muslims and Croats that horrified the world in the early 1990s," said Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program of Human Rights Watch.
Born in 1945 in Montenegro - supposedly in a stable - Karadzic moved as a teen-ager to an area outside Sarajevo. He studied medicine and psychiatry, and then threw in his lot with Serbian nationalists in the 1980s.
In 1990, he helped found the Serbian Democratic Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina and embarked on a political rise fueled by ethnic hatred. During the Balkan wars, he was a Milosevic ally, although they were not friends.
"Milosevic ran Serbia," Stewart said. "Karadzic ran Bosnian Serbia. This guy Karadzic is directly the political authority for all that happened with the Bosnian Serb Army - that means Srebrenica and the shelling of Sarajevo, to name two things."
Six years ago, in an interview with The Times of London, Karadzic made it clear he didn't think much of international justice:
"If the Hague was a real judicial body, I would be ready to go there to testify or do so on television. But it is a political body that has been created to blame the Serbs."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.