``He was one nasty character,'' said Col. James Allard, a NATO spokesman.
The arrest occurred deep in Serb territory, the stronghold of Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader who has been indicted by the United Nations' International War Crimes Tribunal. It was at least an indirect warning that Karadzic could be targeted.
NATO officials said Jelisic was snatched ``without incident'' and transferred to the tribunal headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands.
The Belgrade-based Fonet news agency said Jelisic's wife, Ana, watched the arrest from their apartment window. She said Jelisic was approaching a car when two soldiers snatched him, and trundled him into a van. ``They tied him up and took him away,'' she said.
Officials said that President Clinton, who authorized the action, was awakened at 5:30 a.m. in Washington and told that the mission was successful.
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, traveling in South Korea, said the arrest was primarily an American operation. He added that the capture did not suggest a change in the peacekeeping mission of the 8,000 American soldiers in Bosnia. ``It's in keeping with the rules we have had,'' said Cohen.
NATO has been criticized by many international organizations for not moving quickly enough to capture war criminals. The arrests and trials of suspects - Muslims, Serbs and Croats - are considered paramount to building a permanent peace in this splintered country. But NATO has been wary of triggering another war if it apprehends suspected war criminals who are revered as nationalist heroes, such as Karadzic.
NATO officials yesterday emphasized that its mission is not to aggressively seek out war criminals. Its policy, they said, is to apprehend suspects on a case-by-case basis or if NATO troops encounter them on patrols. But some officials have stated privately that NATO does run surveillance on certain suspects and deploys special teams for arrests. U.S. forces assisted on at least one previous operation.
Jelisic - accused of genocide and crimes against humanity - was the fifth war crimes suspect to be arrested since last summer. NATO launched its first arrests in July in the town of Prijedor, where one suspected Serb war criminal, Simo Drljaca, was killed in a gunfight. Last December, NATO troops seized three Croat war crimes suspects. Two of them were released for lack of evidence.
In all, 20 of the 75 war crimes suspects indicted by the international tribunal are now in custody. Jelisic is one of seven charged with genocide.
The charges against Jelisic - whose instruments of torture were allegedly pipes and shovels - are noteworthy even in a country marred by some of the worst wartime atrocities since World War II. Jelisic, according to the tribunal, was in charge of the Luka detention camp where at least 60 Muslims and Croats were murdered between May 7 and May 21, 1992. During that period, Serb forces were fighting to control the town of Brcko.
``Often,'' according to the indictment, ``[Jelisic] and camp guards forced the detainees who were to be shot to put their heads on a metal grate that drained into the Sava River, so that there would be minimal cleanup after the shootings. . . . Bodies were piled until they were later loaded onto trucks.''
In count 40 of the 77-count indictment against him, Jelisic is also accused of the following: On about May 9, 1992, ``Jelisic brought a Croat detainee named Stipo Glavocevic, who had at least one ear cut off and was covered in blood, into the main hangar building at Luka and forced him to kneel in the center of the hangar. Jelisic beat Glavocevic . . . then directed a guard to shoot and kill [him].''
The tribunal said Jelisic's alleged killing spree in May subsided by midsummer. In July 1992, the prisoners were transferred to another camp. ``During the time the Luka camp operated,'' according to the indictment, ``the Serb authorities killed hundreds of Muslim and Croat detainees.''