The highest-ranking Croatian wanted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal for the Balkans was captured in Spain's Canary Islands on Wednesday night, ending a four-year international manhunt, the court's chief prosecutor announced Thursday.

Spanish police surrounded retired Gen. Ante Gotovina as he dined with a companion in a restaurant at a four-star hotel on the island of Tenerife, according to a statement by Spanish police.

"He's in detention now," the chief war crimes prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, announced during a visit to Belgrade, adding that "finally, he will be transferred to The Hague," seat of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Gotovina, 50, was one of the three most-wanted fugitives sought by the court. He was indicted in July 2001 on charges of overseeing the killings of at least 150 ethnic Serbs and the forced expulsion of tens of thousands of others near the end of Croatia's 1991-95 civil war. Troops under his command are accused of poisoning wells, stealing livestock and using violence and intimidation to evict Serbs from their homes.

Gotovina is regarded by many in Croatia as a hero who helped to seal the country's independence with the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and to secure the national borders against Serb rebels. Groups of supporters, some of them holding portraits of Gotovina, turned out in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, on Thursday to protest the arrest.

Del Ponte's complaints that Croatian officials were not cooperating in the hunt led the European Union to delay negotiations over Croatia's request for E.U. membership. Croatian officials maintained that Gotovina had fled abroad before he was indicted. There had been unconfirmed sightings in South Africa, Italy, Ireland and Bosnia over the past four years.

Two and a half months ago, Del Ponte alleged that one of about 80 Roman Catholic monasteries in Croatia, where most people are Catholic, was sheltering Gotovina and that the Vatican had refused appeals to help find him. It said she had provided insufficient information to allow a search.

With the arrest, "a very important obstacle in proceeding with the negotiations has been cleared away," Olli Rehn, the E.U. commissioner in charge of enlargement of the bloc, said at a news conference in Brussels. Rehn said the Croatian government "cooperated well" with Spanish authorities in tracking Gotovina.

"This arrest is obviously a major step forward for Croatia on its road to eventual NATO membership," State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli said at a briefing Thursday. "We see it as a key step toward reconciliation in the region."

Gotovina, characterized in biographies as a swashbuckling womanizer, is said to have joined the French Foreign Legion at age 16. In August 1995, he commanded Operation Storm, his army's massive attack on Croatia's Krajina region, which ethnic Serbs had seized and declared a separatist state. It was one of the largest operations of the Balkan wars.

Backed by artillery and airstrikes, the Croatian forces reclaimed Krajina and forced almost 200,000 ethnic Serbs to flee into Serbia and Bosnia. Many experts on the Balkans say that the sweep, despite its atrocities, was key to persuading the Serb side to bargain seriously and sign the 1995 Dayton peace accords.

The Spanish National Police had been tracking Gotovina for several days as he moved among the Canary Islands, according to Spanish news reports quoting police sources. He was arrested as he ate dinner Wednesday in a restaurant at the high-rise Hotel Bitacora, about two blocks from the Beach of the Americas on the southern end of the resort island of Tenerife.

"Although it was assumed he would be armed and surrounded by bodyguards, the arrest was executed without incident in just a few seconds," said a statement released by the Spanish Interior Ministry. Gotovina was carrying a fake Croatian passport with the name Kristian Horvat, it said.

"For us, he was just one more tourist on vacation," a hotel employee told the Spanish daily newspaper el Mundo.

A companion who was dining with Gotovina was released, Spanish officials said. They did not identify the person.

Spanish police flew Gotovina to Madrid, where he stepped off a plane dressed in jeans and a blue blazer and apparently handcuffed. He was taken before a High Court judge who informed Gotovina of the charges and began the legal process of transferring him to The Hague.

Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader welcomed the arrest, saying that no one was exempt from justice and that the retired general should stand trial. Gotovina's arrest leaves just two top Balkan war crimes suspects at large -- wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic, his top military commander.