Video: Bosnian war criminal's status

updated 2/22/2006 3:53:48 PM ET 2006-02-22T20:53:48

Chief U.N. prosecutor Carla del Ponte denied on Wednesday rumors that top war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic has been arrested and urged Serbia to find him or risk hurting its bid to join the European Union.

She dismissed reports that negotiations were under way for his surrender, but said Serbia must arrest the former Bosnian Serb commander soon or damage its EU membership talks.

“Mladic remains at large, unfortunately,” she told a news conference at The Hague tribunal. “The false rumors spread yesterday from Belgrade about the arrest of Mladic have absolutely no basis whatsoever.

“Ratko Mladic is in Serbia, there is no doubt about this. He has been there since 1998. During all this time he has been, and he remains within reach of the Serbian authorities. He can and must be arrested immediately,” Del Ponte said.

Despite official denials by Serbia, rumors have been swirling since Tuesday that the 63-year-old fugitive was either under arrest or being talked into surrender to salvage Belgrade’s EU membership prospects, up for review next week.

“Serbia knows that negotiations may be suspended or may never conclude if Belgrade fails to cooperate fully,” Del Ponte said. “I need now a stronger support of the European Union to have Mladic in The Hague very, very soon.”

Necessary sacrifice
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn is due to present a report to EU foreign ministers next Monday or Tuesday assessing whether Serbia is cooperating with the tribunal or stalling. He has warned talks will be frozen if Mladic is not handed over.

Opinion polls suggest Serbs increasingly see his surrender as a necessary sacrifice, but Belgrade is still worried about unrest among hard-liners if their hero is seized.

The Belgrade daily Kurir quoted a source close to the BIA security agency as saying the government denial was a cover-up.

“The government spokesman doesn’t dare confirm it because there’s a fear of unrest in Belgrade,” the source said. “But it is completely true that Mladic has been arrested.”

Serb dailies Glas Javnosti and Blic and the Bosnian Serb newspaper Nezavisne Novine said on Wednesday Mladic was at a secure location negotiating terms of his surrender.

The talks were said to be taking place at a monastery, or a hunting lodge, or a village with an underground rocket base.

Earlier reports said Mladic was tracked down in Serbia then taken to Bosnia, to defuse nationalist anger at home but still salvage Belgrade’s talks with the EU.

Belgrade would probably prefer a low-key surrender in another country to show Mladic was not coerced but also to cast doubt on Western charges that he was hiding in Serbia all along, with government connivance and army help.

“I can’t decide if an arrest is the right thing to do or not,” bank clerk Sinisa Pavlovic told Reuters Television. “As a country we’re in such a situation, there isn’t much we can do about it. It’s up to the authorities to decide what’s best.”

Pensioner Milan Zirojevic said he did not believe Mladic would give himself up “because he is above all a soldier.”

Mladic was indicted along with his political boss Radovan Karadzic in 1995 for genocide for the 43-month siege of Sarajevo, which claimed 12,000 lives, and for orchestrating the 1995 massacre of 8,000 unarmed Muslims at Srebrenica.

Mladic lived openly in Serbia until the fall of strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

To the West he personifies the ruthless Serb nationalism blamed for the wars that erupted as Yugoslavia fell apart in the 1990s, with up to 200,000 dead. To westward-looking Serbs he is the main obstacle to reinstatement in the European mainstream.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told a news conference in London he had no firm news about Mladic.

“It is very important that the Serbian authorities do ensure that Mladic and Karadzic are brought to justice for the most serious war crimes for which they have been accused,” he said.

If EU association talks are suspended it would deal a severe blow to the coalition government in Belgrade.

“The government is aware of the consequences,” said Vladeta Jankovic, an adviser to Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. Mladic’s handover was “almost a condition of survival.”

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