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Ratko Mladic's arrest a milestone for Serbia

Capture of the Bosnian war crimes suspect removes the last obstacle to Serbia's bid to join the EU. But it also revives disturbing questions.

May 27, 2011|By Henry Chu and Zoran Cirjakovic, Los Angeles Times
  • Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb wartime general accused in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, arrives at court in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. He is to be extradited to The Hague to face charges.
Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb wartime general accused in the 1995 Srebrenica…

Reporting from London and Lazarevo, Serbia — The arrest of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general accused of overseeing Europe's worst massacre since World War II, is a milestone in Serbia's effort to end long years as a pariah, even as it renews disturbing questions about how he evaded capture for more than 15 years.

Mladic commanded military forces that seized the town of Srebrenica, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and butchered an estimated 8,000 Muslim men and boys, an atrocity now held up as a symbol of the brutality of the 1992-95 Bosnian war. Now 69 and said to be in poor health, Mladic is to be extradited to The Hague to face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

The arrest of Europe's most wanted war crimes suspect removes the single biggest stumbling block in Bosnian neighbor Serbia's campaign to join the European Union, a potent symbol of modernity and prosperity for the countries that gained independence in the breakup of the Yugoslav federation.

Leaders from around the world hailed the announcement in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, that Mladic would join Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic in The Hague.

"Today we close one chapter … that will bring us one step closer to full reconciliation in the region," Serbian President Boris Tadic declared.

President Obama, traveling in France, said in a statement that Mladic would now "have to answer to his victims, and the world, in a court of law."

But how such a notorious figure managed to evade capture for more than a decade, until his early-morning arrest in a town barely 50 miles north of Belgrade, is likely to raise uncomfortable questions about whether he was sheltered by Serbia nationalists or elements of its security forces. Mladic remains a hero to some in Serbia who see their country as an unfair target of blame for its role in an ethnic conflict that killed an estimated 100,000 people.

But analysts say many more Serbians appear intent on putting the past behind them, and EU membership is regarded as the key step in that process.

The arrest came just hours before the arrival in Belgrade of the EU's top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, for talks, and amid news of a sharply critical report by the chief prosecutor of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal accusing Serbia of half-hearted efforts in its hunt for Mladic.

"It's a complete coincidence, but it's a very nice coincidence," Ashton told the BBC, adding that the arrest was "important for the future of Serbia."

In another sign of efforts to make amends for the past, state television apologized this week for broadcasting incessant propaganda and hate speech during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Whether the arrest of Mladic will provide any catharsis for the surviving victims remains to be seen. While they welcomed his capture, many are bitter over how long it took and are suspicious of Serbia's motives.

"They decided to deliver him now because he's the biggest prize," said Kada Hotic, who lost her husband, son and two brothers in the Srebrenica massacre.

"Now Serbia can go for the EU," Hotic said by telephone from Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. "Nobody in Serbia is mentioning the victims. I listen to the media and they're only talking about what Serbia will get for Mladic…. This is just a trade."

The charges against him include atrocities committed during the siege of Sarajevo, which lasted nearly four years. Bosnian Serb forces shelled the city and snipers picked off residents in the streets in a ruthless campaign that killed about 10,000 people. Mladic is also accused of using United Nations peacekeepers as human shields.

But it is the July 1995 massacre in Srebrenica with which Mladic is most closely identified, a horrific act of so-called ethnic cleansing now seared in Europe's memory. Bosnian Serb forces overran the enclave, which had been declared a safe haven by the United Nations, despite the presence of Dutch peacekeepers. Video showed the burly military commander walking through Srebrenica on a sunny summer day, smiling and assuring residents that they had nothing to fear. He handed out candy to children.

Within hours, Bosnian Serb forces began rounding up thousands of Muslim men and boys and slaughtered them. Women were raped.

A trial is likely to be years away, and probably will take years more to complete. Karadzic was arrested near Belgrade and sent to The Hague, in the Netherlands, in 2008, but the proceedings against him have been bogged down by procedural delays, the sheer mass of evidence, and Karadzic's decision to act as his own lawyer and cross-examine witnesses at length.

The trial of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian strongman accused of being the mastermind behind the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, dragged on for four years until he died of a heart attack in 2006.

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