Serbia announced the arrest of former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic on Thursday, ending a 16-year manhunt for the general accused of masterminding Europe’s worst massacre since World War II.
President Boris Tadic confirmed reports that the 69-year-old had been detained by Serbian security forces, saying the capture would bolster Serbia’s “moral credibility in the world”.
“Today, early in the morning, we arrested Ratko Mladic,” the president told a press conference in the Serbian capital, Belgrade.
“The extradition process is under way,” he added, referring to the process to transfer Mladic to a United Nations tribunal in The Hague.
“Today we close one chapter, a chapter in our history, which brings us … one step closer to full reconciliation in the region.”
Mladic, the most wanted fugitive from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), faces charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes for his role in the Srebrenica massacre and the bloody siege of Sarajevo during the 1992 to 1995 conflict.
His arrest follows heavy pressure from the European Union, which has made clear that Serbia’s failure to capture Mladic was a major obstacle to its hopes of joining the 27-nation bloc.
Reacting to news of the arrest, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said that Mladic must now be transferred to The Hague “without delay”.
Earlier in the day, it had emerged that the special prosecutor for the ICTY had again accused Belgrade of not doing enough to capture Mladic and the former Croatian Serb leader, Goran Hadzic.
Political and judicial saga
Bosnian Serb wartime political leader Radovan Karadzic, Mladic’s mentor, was captured in July 2008 and he is currently on trial at the ICTY’s headquarters in The Hague.
News of the arrest first emerged on Belgrade radio station B92, which said that a man known as Milorad Komadic, but who was in fact believed to be Mladic, had been taken into custody.
Mladic’s capture ends a tortuous political and judicial saga since he was first indicted by the ICTY for his leadership role in the Bosnian war as the former Yugoslavia fell apart.
The indictment against him specifically cites the establishment of camps and detention centres for Bosnian Muslims as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing, as well as the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre and the 44-month siege of Sarajevo.
At Srebrenica, which had been under nominal UN protection, 8 000 Muslim men and boys were rounded up and massacred in Europe’s worst atrocity since World War II.
The UN indictment says Mladic was the operational mastermind behind the slaughter, the only episode during the bloody Bosnian war that was ruled a genocide by the court.
The two counts of genocide — the gravest of all war crimes — focus on an “ethnic cleansing” campaign to drive or terrorise Muslims out of Serb-dominated parts of Bosnia.
Mladic was able to evade capture for almost 15 years since his indictment in 1995, notably thanks to a years-long lack of political will in Belgrade and his status to many Serbs as a war hero.
He lived almost openly in Belgrade until 2000 when former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic was ousted from office. The ouster of his one-time mentor robbed Mladic of his untouchable status.
Even afterwards, though, Mladic hid under military protection, authorities in Serbia have admitted.
It meant that the Nato force in Bosnia, which once had 60 000 troops at its disposal, failed in nine years to arrest him, while its successor, a European force of 7 000, fared no better.
In the end the most effective pressure came from Serbia’s own aspirations to join the European Union.
In his press conference, Tadic stressed that the arrest had come about as “a result of the full cooperation with the Hague war-time tribunal”.
Since the ouster of Milosevic in 2000, 42 suspects have been handed over to the UN tribunal. — AFP