By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
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."
At the same time, Ljajic echoed prosecutors' predictions that the rogue general would be caught by the end of the year. The minister said he would resign if Mladic is not arrested by then. "It's a moral obligation for us," he said.
Ljajic and other Serbian officials were vague when asked why they were so confident. But they acknowledged that previous governments in Belgrade had either overtly protected Mladic or not tried very hard to find him.
The extent of that protection was underscored last month when a Sarajevo television station broadcast several homemade videos of Mladic enjoying life while on the run, including an undated clip of him playing table tennis at a Serbian military barracks. Other videos showed him singing at weddings and playing in the snow.
Serbian investigators said they discovered the videos in December during a search of the Mladic family home in Belgrade, Serbia's capital, and turned them over to the U.N. tribunal. The Sarajevo TV station said some of the videos appeared to have been recorded as recently as last year. Serbian officials denied that, saying all the videos were at least eight years old.
While searching the house, police also found 360 pages of wartime diaries belonging to Mladic. Ljajic described the diaries, in which Mladic talks about his turbulent relations with Karadzic and former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, as a much more significant recovery.
When asked why investigators waited until December to search the Mladic family home, Ljajic shrugged. "It was so obvious that he was not there," he said.
Prosecutors said that the last time Mladic was confirmed as being in Belgrade was December 2005.
In June 2006, investigators thought they were on the verge of a breakthrough as they followed a suspect who was "a direct connection to Mladic," said Vukcevic, the prosecutor.
"But there was a mistake made by the security services, and they missed the person who was closest to Mladic," he said.
Vukcevic described Mladic as "very old and very sick" and said investigators have kept former Serbian military physicians under close surveillance. He declined to comment on local media reports that Mladic, now 67, suffered a mild stroke years ago.
Goran Petrovic, a former chief of Serbia's civilian intelligence service, said Mladic was probably receiving help from retired military officers or other nationalist supporters. "There are a lot of people who would report Mladic to the police, but even more who wouldn't," he said.
He said the Serbian government was not eager to turn over Mladic to The Hague for a show trial but was feeling the pressure to act.
"They're waiting for Mladic to die before they have to choose between him and the European Union," Petrovic said. "They would be happy if Mladic would go to The Hague and die there, without a trial."