Serbian Officials Say War Crimes Fugitive Mladic Is 'Within Reach'
Thursday, July 30, 2009
BELGRADE, Serbia -- Europe's most-wanted war crimes suspect has been on the run longer than Osama bin Laden. But after more than a decade of looking the other way, Serbian authorities say they are finally closing in on Gen. Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander charged with genocide and other crimes in the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
"He's somewhere within reach," said Vladimir Vukcevic, Serbia's prosecutor in charge of investigating war crimes committed during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Vukcevic said that he could not yet pinpoint the fugitive general's location but that it was clear Mladic was in Serbia, adding: "Absolutely, I'm optimistic we're nearing the end. It must be done by the end of the year."
For years, Serbian officials have said they were doing their best to catch Mladic and extradite him to the Netherlands, where he has been indicted by a U.N. tribunal on charges of crimes against humanity and other offenses. And skepticism remains deep here that the man many nationalist Serbs still consider a hero will be arrested anytime soon, despite a $5 million reward offered by the U.S. government.
But Serbian and European Union officials said that political conditions have shifted decisively against Mladic and that investigators, for the first time, have reconstructed his movements from the end of the Bosnian war in 1995 until 2006, when he was last confirmed to be in Serbia.
Also working against Mladic: the July 2008 arrest in Belgrade of fellow fugitive Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb political leader who prosecutors say worked hand-in-hand with the general to carry out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Bosnian Muslims and Croats. Their goal was to create a Greater Serbia out of the remains of the former Yugoslavia by expelling or exterminating other ethnic groups. About a quarter-million people died during the conflict.
Both men are charged in the executions of about 8,000 Muslims in the town of Srebrenica in 1995, the worst massacre in Europe since World War II, as well as a three-year bombing siege of Sarajevo that flattened the city and killed about 10,000 people.
Serbian investigators said they have concluded that Mladic had no recent contact with Karadzic, a psychologist by training who avoided capture for years by masquerading as a New Age healer. The lack of a sustained public backlash to Karadzic's arrest, officials and analysts said, has made it easier for the government to redouble its efforts to find Mladic.
The biggest boost to the manhunt, however, was the election last year of a new Serbian government that has pledged to end the country's chilly relations with the West and join the European Union.
"You have a very different Serbia now," said Vuk Jeremic, Serbia's foreign minister. "This is probably the most pro-European government in the history of Serbia. It represents a coming out of the decades of crisis and war."
Serbia had hoped to begin the lengthy application process to join the European Union early this year. But the Dutch government has blocked Serbia's candidacy, insisting that it catch Mladic first. Mladic's freedom is a sore point in the Netherlands, whose peacekeeping troops were overrun by his forces in Srebrenica.
Rasim Ljajic, the Serbian official in charge of relations with the U.N. war crimes tribunal based in The Hague, said his government remains surprised that the Dutch did not drop their objections after Karadzic's capture. Ljajic said that nearly all other members of the European Union, as well as the United States, have expressed satisfaction with Serbia's record in tracking down war criminals and cooperating with the U.N. tribunal.
"Everybody but the Netherlands believes in our efforts," he said. "They are being very tough in their position, and it's hard to expect that they'll change."