Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic, center, accompanied by an aide and French… (Reuters )
LONDON — Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general accused of overseeing the worst massacre in Europe since the end of World War II, has been arrested, Serbian authorities said Thursday.
Mladic is Europe's most wanted war crimes suspect for his alleged role in the 1995 slaughter of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the enclave of Srebrenica, an atrocity that came to symbolize the brutality of the Balkans conflict. The war crimes tribunal in The Hague wants to try Mladic on charges of genocide.
Serbian President Boris Tadic announced Mladic's capture at a hastily called news conference in Belgrade, the nation's capital, and said authorities were preparing his extradition.
The arrest comes after sustained criticism of Serbia for being too lackadaisical in tracking down Mladic, including a new report by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia that reportedly castigates Belgrade's efforts as insufficient.
Serbia is also eager to join the European Union, which has made Belgrade's cooperation with The Hague a condition of its membership. The EU's top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, is due in Serbia imminently for a visit.
"Today we close one chapter ? that will bring us one step closer to full reconciliation in the region," Tadic said, adding: "I believe all the doors to our membership in the EU have been opened now."
He added that Mladic was arrested on Serbian soil but did not disclose other details of the operation.
There will be questions, however, as to how Mladic managed to remain at large for so long and whether elements of Serbian security forces knew of his whereabouts without bothering to act. Some Serbian nationalists consider Mladic a hero and believe their country to be the unfair target of censure for its wartime past by international authorities. The arrest could trigger street protests.
Tadic declined to speculate whether such demonstrations would occur, and also denied that the timing of Mladic's arrest was a tactical move.
"We are not making [a] calculation [on] when and how to deliver" Mladic, said Tadic, adding that the arrest was a matter for "the moral dignity" of Serbia.
The massacre at Srebrenica was the biggest atrocity in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, a ruthless drive to get rid of Bosnian Muslims. Overall, about 200,000 people are believed to have died in the conflict.
"There's a very good reason why the long arm of the international law has been looking for this man for such a long time," British Prime Minister David Cameron said.
Three years ago, Serbian authorities arrested Radovan Karadzic, who is also accused of genocide in connection with the Srebrenica massacre. When he was caught, Karadzic had changed his appearance by growing a flowing beard, had adopted a pseudonym and worked as a sort of spiritual healer.
Karadzic's trial is underway at The Hague but has been bogged down by procedural delays and the sheer mass of material and evidence for lawyers to examine.