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Capture ends years of Mladic bravado, official lies

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 26 May 2011 16:01 GMT
Author: Reuters
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(Repeats, correcting links)

* Mladic went from brazen outlaw to hunted man

* General lost his bravado after Milosevic arrest

* Captured Thursday, old, haggard and now in handcuffs

By Branimir Filipovic

LAZAREVO, Serbia, May 26 (Reuters) - For years after the Bosnian war, Ratko Mladic lived with impunity, mocking Western powers demanding his arrest. For years the West did not believe Serbia was truly trying to bring him to justice for war crimes.

Those doubts were resolved on Thursday with the former Bosnian Serb general's capture in a Serbian village, the sudden end to a decade of mysterious sightings, cold trails, red herrings and rumours of his death.

Mladic was indicted by the United Nations in 1995 for the siege of Sarajevo and genocide at Srebrenica along with his political alter ego, Radovan Karadzic.

But for a long time after his indictment, the burly general appeared to feel completely safe in a security cocoon of well-placed loyalists.

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Sightings were reported at the Belgrade racecourse, in a busy restaurant, at a well-known Bosnian army post. It was as if he had no real need for disguises and hideouts; as if he was confident no Serbian government would ever dare hand him over.

About 12,000 people had been killed in Sarajevo under the mountaintop guns of the Bosnian Serb Army over more than three years. About 8,000 Muslim men and boys had been slaughtered in July 1995 in Srebrenica, in just four days.

But many Serbian nationalists regarded Mladic as a war hero who did no worse than Croat or Bosnian Muslim forces in the bloody conflicts that tore Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s.

His photo adorned calendars sold on Belgrade street corners and hung in Serbian bars, while 'Wanted' posters were conspicuous by their absence. He was quoted as saying: "The Hague will not see me alive." It wa not until the late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic was himself arrested and sent to the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague in 2001 that the fortunes of Europe's most wanted fugitive slowly began to slip.

UNCEASING PRESSURE

The 2003 assassination by extreme nationalists of the young reformist premier Zoran Djindjic stunned Serbia, and shocked powers deeply invested in seeing that their military gamble in the Balkans would pay off with democratic stability.

Bringing the war crimes suspects to trial started to become imperative.

As the European Union and NATO piled pressure on Serbia's reformist government to arrest them, the long list of those at large began to shorten until the elusive Mladic became the prime remaining obstacle to Serbia's EU membership hopes.

Struggling to prove its good faith, Belgrade set up special units to find him. There were constant reports of clues, tip-offs and dawn raids, all ending in further mystery and deeper scepticism in Brussels and The Hague.

He was sought throughout Serbia and Bosnia's Serb Republic.

At one point he was reported to be safe somewhere in Siberia. But tribunal prosecutor Carla Del Ponte insisted, in the face of hot denials from Belgrade, that he was in Serbia.

After a landlord came forward saying he had once rented an apartment to the general in the capital, Serbia made the embarrassing admission that Mladic had indeed been hiding there as late as 2006, when, it said, he vanished without trace. NATO forces overseeing the peace in Bosnia were often brought in to check out Mladic sightings, handing over the frustrating chase in late 2004 to a European Union force.

None of them had any luck.

In June 2010, the Mladic family filed a request to have him declared dead, based on the fact that they had not seen him in seven years and that he had been very sick. Mladic had a brain haemorrhage in 1996 and was treated in military hospital, where a witness saw him again in 2000, already a fugitive.

A legal death notice ending the manhunt would have been greeted with outrage by The Hague, NATO and the EU alike, and in September 2010 a Belgrade court rejected the request.

"IT'S ME -- RATKO"

The real turning point in what many sceptics by then considered a cat-and-mouse game with no end came in 2008 with the sudden arrest of Karadzic, barely recognisable with a beard and long hair, posing as a new-age guru.

He had been living quietly in Belgrade under a false name.

The pace of the hunt for Mladic was stepped up. Police carried out raids of Mladic's house and the houses of his suspected helpers, searching for a warm trail. A reward of 10 million euros was posted for information leading to his arrest. A joke made the rounds that a surprised Karadzic had been recognised by a mysterious apple-seller in the market place. The old lady removed her hood and, revealing features uncannily like those of Mladic, whispered to him: "Radovan! It's me -- Ratko."

The joke turns out to have been not too far from the truth.

After 16 years a fugitive, and less than six truly "on the run", the former commander was caught in the northern Serbian village of Lazarevo in Vojvodina, in a brick house owned by his cousin Branislav Mladic, not far from the local church.

"Mladic was cooperative. He was handcuffed and taken away," said a policeman.

Family lawyer Milos Saljic said Mladic's wife and son were shocked. "They learned of the arrest from media reports," Saljic said. "The family is happy, in a way, that Mladic is alive."

The former general looked haggard and, like Karadzic, barely recognisable. False papers identified him as "Milorad Komadic".

Villagers said the raid was carried out in the morning.

"It was over quickly," said one, named Djordje.

"We often joked that he must be here, because his relative lives in the village." (Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic, Ivana Sekularac, Igor Ilic; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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