War Crimes Suspect Mladic Reportedly Seized

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

BELGRADE, Feb. 21 -- The Serbian government on Tuesday denied news reports that a top Bosnian Serb war crimes fugitive, Gen. Ratko Mladic, had been arrested, but Bosnian and Serbian sources said he was in custody in Bosnia.

"The news about Ratko Mladic is not correct," government spokesman Srdjan Djuric said in a telephone call. "It is a manipulation which damages the [Serbian] government."

Independent Belgrade radio broadcaster B92 said that in spite of Djuric's denial, a number of sources had told its reporters that the 63-year-old general had been arrested in Serbia, then transferred to Tuzla in northeastern Bosnia for a flight to The Hague.

This was the route used to take former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague when he was extradited in 2001 and flown from Belgrade via the U.S. military base Camp Eagle near Tuzla to the Netherlands.

Morning newspapers on Tuesday speculated that Belgrade officials would spirit Mladic into Bosnia after his arrest to counter charges by the tribunal that he had been hiding in Serbia for years with government knowledge and army help.

In the afternoon, Serbia's state news agency Tanjug and the main Bosnian Serb agency SRNA said that the wartime Bosnian Serb army commander had been arrested in Belgrade and then taken to Tuzla.

Mladic was indicted in 1995 on a charge of genocide for the 43-month siege of Sarajevo that claimed at least 12,000 lives and for allegedly orchestrating the 1995 massacre of about 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica, the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II.

His political boss, Radovan Karadzic, indicted on the same charges, is still at large.

Serbian newspapers have been saying for days that Mladic would be on a plane to The Hague before the end of February, in time to avert suspension of Belgrade's association talks with the European Union, which would deal a body blow to the government.

The end of February is the deadline for a report by Olli Rehn, the E.U. commissioner in charge of enlargement of the bloc, on whether Serbia is cooperating fully with the U.N. tribunal.

Florence Hartmann, spokeswoman for the U.N. war crimes prosecutor, said the office had no information on the reported arrest. "These are rumors. We cannot comment on something that doesn't exist," she said.

Without confirming the newspaper reports of an imminent arrest, Vladeta Jankovic, adviser to Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, said efforts to find Mladic were "in full swing."

"The government is aware of the consequences," he told B92 radio. "It might be a decisive moment, not only for the survival of the government, but for the future prospects of the state," he said. Mladic's handover was "almost a condition of survival."

Belgrade is desperate to avoid suspension of E.U. association talks begun last year. They are the first step to eventual E.U. membership -- Serbia's top priority -- and E.U. officials in Brussels have warned that they will stop if Mladic is not arrested.

Reports predicting his imminent arrest or detailing official efforts to track him down intensify each time Serbia faces a Western deadline for action, although Serbia constantly protests that it has no evidence he is even in the country.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company