War Crimes Fugitive Ratko Mladic Is Caught

May 26, 2011

One of the world's most wanted war crimes suspects, Ratko Mladic, was apprehended early Thursday in Serbia after 16 years on the lam.

The brutal former Bosnian Serb general suspected of leading the slaughter of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys had been in hiding since he was indicted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal for genocide and other crimes committed by his troops during Bosnia's civil war in the 1990s.

Mladic appeared Thursday evening at a closed session in a Belgrade court, looking frail and walking very slowly as he was escorted by four guards. His lawyer, Milos Saljic, said the judge cut short questioning Mladic because of his "poor physical state."

The Serbian Security Intelligence Agency arrested Mladic, who was reportedly living under someone else's identity, early Thursday in a northern province.

"We ended a difficult period of our history and removed the stain from the face of the members of our nation wherever they live," Serbian President Boris Tadic told reporters as he announced the arrest.

Tadic said DNA testing confirmed Mladic's identity and that the former fugitive would be extradited for trial before the U.N. tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. He did not specify when, but said "an extradition process is under way."

Serbian authorities had been under growing international pressure to hunt him down. The country's aspirations of joining the European Union had been hindered by its failure to bring in Mladic, but an EU spokeswoman said the arrest shows Serbia wants "to move further on its European path."

In the U.S., President Obama welcomed the news of Mladic's capture.

"Today is an important day for the families of Mladic's many victims, for Serbia, for Bosnia, for the United States, and for international justice," Obama said in a statement. "While we will never be able to bring back those who were murdered, Mladic will now have to answer to his victims, and the world, in a court of law."

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the arrest "finally offers a chance for justice to be done."

Worst Atrocity Since World War II

U.N. prosecutors have said they believed Mladic was hiding in Serbia under the protection of hardliners who consider him a hero for his role in Bosnia's 1992-95 ethnic war.

Mladic had two pistols when he was arrested but offered no resistance, and he appeared shrunken, bald and pale, Serbian officials and media said. A Bosnian radio station said he was not in disguise — unlike wartime Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic, who was arrested in Belgrade in 2008 posing as a New Age guru, with long white hair and a beard.

While Karadzic's arrest didn't produce much of a reaction, Mladic is far more popular among die-hard nationalists in Serbia, according to NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. Because of that, she said, authorities will "probably try to get him to The Hague as fast as possible."

Villagers told The Associated Press that Thursday's arrest by Serbian security officers appeared to be swift and quiet.

"They didn't even wake us up," said a man who identified himself only as Zoran for fear of reprisals. "We learned about the arrest only in the morning."

Mladic led the Bosnian Serb army throughout the war and stands accused of orchestrating the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II: the massacre at Srebrenica.

In 1995, about 8,000 Muslim men and young boys were slaughtered in the Bosnian village, which has become nearly synonymous with the horrible bloodshed of the Balkan conflicts.

Poggioli said TV images showed Mladic entering Srebrenica, which had been declared a safe haven by the United Nations peacekeepers. He handed out candy to Muslim children in the town square just hours before the killing began.

"There are pictures of him, horrible, chilling pictures of him caressing the face of a little frightened boy, promising nothing will happen as he sent all the women and children away in buses," she said from Madrid. "And then the TV cameras disappeared and then the massacre happened over the next few days."

The victims were shot to death and their bodies bulldozed into mass graves.

Evidence that has been presented in other trials before the international war crimes tribunal at The Hague points the finger at Mladic as the architect of that massacre, Poggioli said.

Munira Subasic, the head of a group of victims' family members formed to keep the pressure on war crimes investigators, welcomed the news of Thursday's arrest. But she added, "I'm sorry for all the victims who are dead and cannot see this day."

'Burn Their Brains!'

Mladic's ruthlessness was legendary: "Burn their brains!" he once bellowed as his men pounded the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, with artillery fire.

So was his arrogance: He nicknamed himself "God," and kept goats that he was said to have named after Western leaders he despised.

Among his men, Mladic commanded fierce devotion — many Bosnian Serb soldiers pledged to follow him to the death — and adoration bordering on the pathological.

As military leaderships go, his was omnipresent, from front-line trenches to chess games on high-altitude outlooks. He was known for ordering push-ups as a prelude to battle, and he enjoyed reviewing military parades and rubbing shoulders with U.N. commanders in Bosnia.

Obsessed with his nation's history, Mladic saw Bosnia's war — which killed more than 100,000 people and displaced an additional 1.8 million — as a chance for revenge against 500 years of Turkish-Ottoman occupation of Serbia. He viewed Bosnian Muslims as Turks and called them that as an insult.

Convinced of the power of his army, he was known for telling his soldiers: "When I give you guarantees, it's as if they are given by God."

Once, asking air traffic control to clear the way for his helicopter to land, he declared: "Here speaks Ratko Mladic the Serbian God."

Mladic was indicted by the U.N. tribunal along with Karadzic for genocide linked to the Srebrenica massacre, as well as numerous counts of crimes against humanity. The allegations include the taking of peacekeepers as hostages, the destruction of sacred places, the torture of captured civilians and the wanton destruction of private property.

During the shelling of Sarajevo, Mladic was said to have commanded: "Scorch and destroy!" He denied ever giving such an order.

The U.S. government offered $5 million for information leading to his arrest or conviction in any country.

Mladic's Fugitive Years

Mladic began his fugitive years in Han Pijesak, a military compound in eastern Bosnia built for former Yugoslav communist leader Josip Broz Tito and designed to withstand a nuclear attack.

With his wife, Bosa, Mladic settled down to imposed domesticity, passing the time caring for bees and goats. His 23 goats reputedly bore the names of foreign dignitaries he despised, such as Madeleine Albright, the former U.S. secretary of state.

Surrounded by security guards, he occasionally ventured out of the dense pine forest to mark events such as the anniversary of the Bosnian Serb army and St. Vitus Day, a religious festival marking the 1389 Serb defeat by the Turks at Kosovo.

When in the late 1990s his trail grew too hot in Bosnia, Mladic moved with family into a posh suburban villa in the Yugoslav capital, Belgrade.

In Belgrade, he was seen attending his son's wedding. He showed up at soccer games, dined in plush restaurants and frequented elite cafes, refusing to give interviews and smiling quizzically when he happened to be photographed.

When Milosevic was ousted from power in October 2000, and Yugoslavia's new pro-democracy authorities signaled they might hand Mladic over to the tribunal, tabloids had him leaving Belgrade for Bosnia.

But true to his style, Mladic countered those rumors and others that had him terminally ill in Belgrade. Before going underground in 2002, he was repeatedly seen in public — sometimes with his guards, sometimes without them.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, Philip Reeves and Teri Schultz contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press.

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