Mladic on the run: from Belgrade bars to the countryside

AFP , Friday 27 May 2011

For nearly 16 years, Ratko Mladic evaded international justice, first living openly in Belgrade before going into hiding after the fall of his protector

For nearly 16 years, Ratko Mladic evaded international justice, first living openly in Belgrade before going into hiding after the fall of his protector, Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

His arrest Thursday seemed almost anti-climactic. While many believed he was holed up in remote mountains with a few of his most trusted associates, ready to kill anyone who came to arrest him, he was finally caught alone, in his pyamas, without using the two guns he had with him.

According to newspaper reports, Serbian intelligence officers and a special war criminals tracking team swooped in the early hours of Thursday on several houses in Lazarevo, a village around 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of Belgrade, in the Vojvodina plains close to the Romanian border.

The houses were owned by relatives of Mladic and had been under surveillance for the past two weeks, sources told AFP. Mladic was found alone in one of the houses and offered no resistance.

The media reported that the former general has difficulty moving, apparently due to a series of strokes. Some papers said he lived alone and a neighbour had to help him get dressed after the arrest.

Two papers published one of the first photographs seen of Mladic since he went on the run, showing a visibly older and thinner but still recognisable face.

Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military chief during the 1992-95 Balkans wars, was indicted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1995.

The indictment singled out the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys, the worst single atrocity on European soil since World War II, and the 44-month siege of Sarajevo which cost 10,000 lives.

The atrocities were carried out in the name of "Greater Serbia", an attempt to link Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia to Serbia proper that made him a hero to his people and a favourite of Milosevic.

The general known as "the butcher of the Balkans" remained in the Serb-controlled part of Bosnia after the war, threatening a bloodbath if anyone attempted to detain him.

He later moved to Belgrade and lived openly there until the ouster of Milosevic in October 2000, visiting cafes and restaurants and attending football matches.

After the fall of his ally -- who was to die in prison while being tried by the ICTY -- Mladic vanished with the help of former military aides, who moved him from flat to flat in the capital, where he rarely went outdoors, according to Serbian officials.

There were also persistent reports that he was being moved between different military barracks across the country. Shooting deaths of soldiers in some barracks over the years were rumoured to be "clean-up" operations because they had inadvertently stumbled on Mladic's hiding place.

He is also suspected of seeking refuge in monasteries. The Serbian Orthodox Church has strong ties to nationalist movements here and a respected bishop openly offered to shelter Mladic's boss, Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic, who was arrested here in 2008 and sent for trial at The Hague.

In 2009 a Bosnian television channel showed what seemed to be home videos documenting part of his life on the run. The images showed Mladic in restaurants and apartments and at what appears to be a barracks, almost always accompanied by his wife Bosiljka and son Darko.

Stories also appeared of a charmed country life in a cottage in Valjevo where he tended his roses and kept bees.

Despite Belgrade's repeated vows to arrest the general, successive governments failed to move in on him as they struggled with nationalist elements and Mladic's network of loyal former aides.

Serbia's war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukevic said last year that the best chance to arrest Mladic had been in 2006, when the fugitive "was in our hands".

But the attempt failed because Serbia's intelligence services chief at the time moved to detain the man hiding Mladic first, tipping off the general that an arrest was imminent and enabling him to flee.

But as the government cracked down on Mladic they gradually cut off the network of associates that he relied on for shelter and financial help.

Earlier this year his family tried to get him officially declared dead, with his wife saying she had not seen him since 2003, but the petition was turned down.

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