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Focus on other Bosnian Serb fugitives

Serbia, eager to end its pariah status, may finally move to detain ex-commander Ratko Mladic as well.

July 26, 2008|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

BELGRADE, SERBIA — Having put notorious war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic behind bars, Serbia is now under pressure to arrest the former Bosnian Serb leader's army commander and close the final chapter on the devastating 1990s ethnic war.

Arresting Ratko Mladic, like Karadzic a fugitive for more than a decade, would clear the way for Serbia to gain access to the European Union's lucrative markets, diplomats say.

Many experts believe Mladic's capture is now all but inevitable. Such a move, however, carries substantially greater risks for the Western-leaning government of President Boris Tadic.

Where Karadzic was widely seen as a corrupt, opportunist figure -- a buffoon, even, in some circles -- Mladic is regarded as a genuine hero by many Serbian nationalists. He is thought to enjoy protection and logistical support at high levels of the Serbian state security apparatus and the military, and dislodging him could trigger a violent backlash.

"Mladic is a more complicated target," said Bratislav Grubacic, a political analyst in Belgrade. "Many people think he's carrying a torch for Serbs and he himself believes he has a mission. I think [his arrest] is a matter of time, but it won't be easy."

Already, Tadic, whose decision it was to extradite Karadzic to the international war crimes tribunal at The Hague, and three other top officials in his government are receiving death threats, Serbian media reported. The threats -- in letters, mock obituaries and telephone messages -- warn Tadic that he will suffer the same fate as former Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who was assassinated in 2003, two years after he sent Serbia's onetime dictator Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague for trial.

Threats aside, the reaction to the Karadzic arrest has been relatively muted, and Tadic's government may take that as a sign that it can take the next step of hauling in Mladic.

Mostly young Serbian nationalists have staged protests daily since Karadzic's capture in Belgrade by Serbian security forces was announced Monday. They have scuffled with police and broken some windows, but the demonstrations, while full of anger, have remained small.

Organizers say they plan a huge rally Tuesday aimed at eventually toppling the government. Hard-line opposition parties said they would join in the show of anger.

"Betrayal has never gone unpunished in Serbia," said Vjerica Radeta, an official with the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party (whose leader is also on trial at The Hague). "We are not threatening [Tadic] but warning him of the curse that has followed all traitors in Serbian history."

Karadzic's attorney was expected to file an appeal of his extradition before a deadline ran out at midnight Friday. The attorney, who could file the document by mail, did not say whether he had done so.

If the court receives an appeal, it will rule within days. Karadzic could be sent to The Hague as soon as early next week, Serbia's war crimes prosecutor, Vladimir Vukcevic, said.

A key motive behind Tadic's determination to hand over Karadzic -- something no Serbian leader before him was willing to do -- is an aspiration to move closer to Western Europe and shed Serbia's pariah status. The West long held Belgrade responsible for many of the horrors of the Balkan wars and imposed sanctions and other punishments on Serbia.

The European Union made a promise of aid and access on condition that Karadzic, Mladic and a third fugitive, Goran Hadzic, the final of dozens of indicted war crimes suspects, are arrested.

Belgrade is making other conciliatory gestures. This week it reinstalled ambassadors who were recalled from European countries that recognized Kosovo's declaration of independence. Kosovo seceded from Serbia in February.

Karadzic and Mladic were indicted on multiple counts of genocide and other crimes against humanity stemming from the 1992-95 war in Bosnia, in which an estimated 200,000 people on all sides of the conflict were killed and nearly 2 million driven from their homes.

The men stand accused of carrying out the single bloodiest atrocity in post-World War II Europe: the slaughter of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys from the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica. Television footage from the summer day 13 years ago when the victims were rounded up shows a uniformed Mladic in Srebrenica, directing his soldiers and chatting with the Muslim men who would soon die.

They are also charged in the 43-month siege of Sarajevo, the cosmopolitan capital of Bosnia that was strangled, starved and repeatedly shelled by Serb forces posted on the hills circling the city.

Karadzic went into hiding soon after the indictment. He assumed the false identity of Dragan David Dabic, posing as a New Age-type alternative medicine guru who gave lectures and published ruminations on meditation.

His lawyer says he intends to defend himself in the eventual trial at The Hague. Milosevic did the same, transforming the courtroom into a kind of pulpit.

People here overwhelmingly believe that the war crimes tribunal is biased against Serbs, a notion reinforced in recent weeks with the release of a prominent Bosnian Muslim and earlier a Kosovo Albanian. Both were tried on charges of killing Serbs.

Almost on par with that belief, however, is support in Serbia for joining the European Union and ending the country's isolation. That impulse may ultimately give political cover to Tadic and his government if they go after Mladic.

"There is political will to finish this story," political analyst Grubacic said. "Serbs do not like The Hague, but they also understand we can't continue to live like this. Most would like to close this chapter."


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