BELGRADE (Reuters) - Bosnian Serb wartime general Ratko Mladic was arrested in Serbia Thursday after years on the run from international genocide charges, opening the way for the once-pariah state to approach the European mainstream.
Mladic, accused of orchestrating the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica and a brutal 43-month siege of Sarajevo during Bosnia’s 1992-5 war, was found in a farmhouse owned by a cousin, a police official said.
“Mladic was handcuffed and whisked away,” said the official, who said he been cooperative during the arrest. The formerly burly and widely-feared general was not disguised but had false identity papers and looked haggard and much older, he said.
“Hardly anyone could recognise him.”
A friend of the Mladic family said he had been put on a plane to the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, but Serbia said he was still in its custody.
“On behalf of the Republic of Serbia I can announce the arrest of Ratko Mladic. The extradition process is under way,” Serbian President Boris Tadic told reporters in Belgrade just hours before a visit by a top official of the European Union, which told Serbia it must arrest Mladic before it could join.
Tadic confirmed Mladic, 69, had been detained in Serbia, which had long said it could not find a man who is still seen as a hero by many Serbs and whose Bosnian Serb Army was armed and funded by the late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic.
“This removes a heavy burden from Serbia and closes a page of our unfortunate history,” Tadic said.
Shortly afterwards, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton arrived in Belgrade.
“It’s of course a very important day for international justice and for the rule of law,” she said, while EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele echoed her words but said Serbia still had many reforms to carry out on the road to EU membership.
Mladic was arrested in the village of Lazarevo, near the northeastern town of Zrenjanin around 100 km (60 miles) from the capital Belgrade in the early hours, the police official said.
Bosnian Muslim survivors said the news was bittersweet.
“I have been waiting for years for this criminal, who gave himself the right to take away my children and force me out of my town, to face justice,” said Kada Sehomerovic, who lost her husband, son and two brothers when Bosnian Serbs under Mladic seized Srebrenica, designated at the time as a “U.N. safe area.”
A Mladic family friend earlier told Reuters Mladic had been taken to the headquarters of the Serbian intelligence agency after an interior ministry official said police had arrested a man going by the name of Milorad Komadic on an anonymous tip.
The Mladic family friend said Mladic had left Serbia for The Hague by plane Thursday afternoon. “They sent him immediately,” the friend, who did not want to be named, told Reuters. “It is a security risk to keep him in Belgrade.”
But the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague said the transfer would take place after the completion of judicial proceedings required by Serbian law.
Many nationalists in Serbia, which was under international sanctions over the war in Bosnia and then bombed by NATO to stop atrocities in Kosovo in 1999, idolise Mladic and one representative made clear their fury with the government.
“This shameful arrest of a Serb general is a blow to our national interests and the state,” Boris Aleksic, a spokesman for the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party said. “This is a regime of liars — dirty, corrupt and treacherous.”
Dozens of people were arrested and injured in 2008 throughout Serbia in riots following the arrest of Bosnian Serb wartime political leader Radovan Karadzic.
Tadic said he would not allow a repeat of such violence.
“This country will remain stable,” he said. “Whoever tries to destabilise it will be prosecuted and punished.”
Washington and other capitals hailed the arrest.
“The European prospects of Serbia are now brighter than ever,” said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.
“Serbia is a country that has suffered a lot but the fact it has delivered presumed war criminals is very good news. It’s one more step towards Serbia’s integration one day into the European Union,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy said at a Group of Eight summit in France.
Serbia’s dinar currency rose more than one percent on the news, which Tadic said opened the way for reconciliation in the Balkans region, still recovering from the conflicts that tore apart old federal Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Mladic played a central role in some of the darkest episodes of Balkan and European history and called his arrest “an important step towards a Europe that is whole, free and at peace.”
Although his arrest removed a diplomatic thorn from Belgrade’s side, the revelation that Mladic was in Serbia, as many suspected, raises questions as to how he eluded justice for so long.
Additional reporting by Adam Tanner in Rabat, Aaron Gray-Block in Amsterdam and David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo and Catherine Bremer in Deauville; writing by Philippa Fletcher; editing by Mark Heinrich