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Serbs Admit That Officials Aided War Crimes Fugitive

Poster of fugitive Ratko Mladic was displayed in Belgrade this month by a mourner at service for Slobodan Milosevic.
Poster of fugitive Ratko Mladic was displayed in Belgrade this month by a mourner at service for Slobodan Milosevic. (By Marko Djurica -- Reuters)

Serbian officials say Mladic's support network is composed of comrades from his home town in Kalinovik, Bosnia, and from the Ninth Corps of the Yugoslav army, which Mladic commanded in 1991, as well as from military intelligence of the former Yugoslav army. Some of his helpers may still be in the army or intelligence agencies, the officials say.

For years, Mladic moved around openly in Serbia. He was hosted at various military bases in the country. But in 2002, the year the Belgrade government agreed to fully cooperate with The Hague tribunal, he left the base at Gornji Milanovac, about 55 miles south of Belgrade, and disappeared.

His whereabouts since have been the subject of intense speculation. NATO peacekeeping forces and local police have mounted numerous manhunts in the area of Han Pijesak, in Serb-dominated eastern Bosnia. An extensive underground military bunker is located there.

Mladic has been spotted in a restaurant in the town of Pricevici and atop forested Cer Mountain, at the Bosnian border. Cer contains a military base, a Serbian Orthodox monastery and numerous hunting lodges. Residents of the region are known for fierce nationalism. During World War II, Serbs there put up a staunch defense against German invaders. In the postwar period, loyalists of the defunct Serbian monarchy resisted Communist rule.

Last year, the political atmosphere seemed to be ripe for Mladic's surrender after a video of the execution of six Srebrenica prisoners was broadcast in Serbia.

Rumors of Mladic's capture or surrender circulated widely in advance of the 10th anniversary of the Srebrenica killings. At the time, Serb officials said they had been negotiating with intermediaries and authorized financial help for Mladic's family if he gave himself up. The United States has offered a $5 million reward for his capture.

This week, the Belgrade daily newspaper Politika reported that investigators had interrogated 20 members who served as security guards for Mladic in the past to try to trace his whereabouts. Politika also reported that the government had "indications" that Mladic had left the country.

Serbian officials say that a team of about 300 intelligence and military operatives is working to find the fugitive. Recently, police searched three apartments in Belgrade where reports said he had been hiding. They were described as filthy rooms filled with cigarette butts, rotten mattresses and gas camp stoves.

Some Serbian officials have gone as far as to suggest that Mladic kill himself and take the burden of capturing him off Serbia.

The recent death of wartime Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic in his cell outside The Hague has created new political obstacles to a surrender. Serbs who opposed sending Milosevic to trial were enraged; they would be likely to raise new objections to transferring Mladic. "Milosevic's death makes it all the more difficult for the government," said Nenad Stefanovic, news director at government-operated RTS television.

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